Updated 19 October 2017

Armed Forces Community – intention to recommend inclusion of this topic in the 2021 Census


We have now concluded our research on the armed forces community topic for the 2021 Census. Our understanding of the user need for information on those who have served, and now left, the UK armed forces (service leavers) has grown and we've been researching how best to meet this need. We have concluded that whilst there is value in the administrative datasets on service leavers, it only partially meets the user need. We've developed and tested a census question on service leavers and concluded that such a question will work; it is acceptable and understood by respondents; and can be accommodated within the questionnaire. We are therefore now intending to recommend inclusion of this topic in the 2021 Census. See the latest update on topic development.


Following our response to the Armed forces topic consultation in May 2016, we've worked with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), local authorities, clinical care groups, and charities to better understand the need for data and how best to meet that need. This work was split across three themes:

  • Theme 1 focused on articulating the user need for information on service leavers. Input has been sought from across government, local authorities, healthcare bodies and the charitable sector
  • Theme 2 focused on making use of existing data to inform the needs of service leavers. We've worked with the MoD to explore whether the MoD's existing dataset, the veteran leavers database (VLD), would meet the user need
  • Theme 3 focused on census question development. This included developing and testing a question on service leavers

User need

Through our discussions with users we've clarified and gained further evidence of the user need for information on those who have served in the UK Armed Forces, and their dependants. Users told us that they need this data to support their commitments under the Armed Forces Covenant. Central and local government have both committed to the Covenant and it's now part of the NHS charter.

Those who sign up to the Covenant commit to ensuring those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, are treated fairly. Support is provided in a number of areas including; education and family well-being, housing, healthcare and employment. Users need this data at local authority level and below so that they can better target services to those most in need.

Better use of existing data

We linked the Veterans Leavers Database (VLD) to the 2011 Census in our safe and secure research environment to see if it could provide sufficient information to meet users' needs. This work is concluding, but some of our findings are:

  • The VLD only hold records for former armed forces personnel who left service since 1975
  • We've matched half of the approximately 1.9 million records in the dataset
  • We matched a greater number of those aged between 25 and 69
  • Our early analysis suggest that the data becomes less reliable for older individuals, particularly the over 55's.

So whilst the linked data provide a useful research resource for informing policy and service delivery for those aged 16 to 55, it misses a large part of the service leavers' population. Data users need information on the whole population and therefore we've concluded that the linked data only partially meet the user needs.

Census question development

We have been developing a question that will work in the context of the census alongside the linked data research. A number of different questions have been tested both through interviews and focus groups to explore the wording of a question, and we have also carried some large scale testing through the ONS Opinions and Lifestyle survey. The main results from this are that:

  • The question is generally well understood and accurately answered by respondents. There is some further work to do to ensure that we don't capture current servers as previous servers and to make it as simple as possible for those that have served as both regulars and reserves.
  • The testing on the ONS Opinions and Lifestyle survey found that 88% of those answering the question thought it was acceptable to ask on the 2021 Census. Those that said it was unacceptable thought it was not relevant to them, or because they didn't understand the need for a question. When asked if they thought it was acceptable to answer an armed forces question on behalf of someone else in the household; 81% of respondents said they thought it was acceptable. Those that said they thought it was unacceptable thought it was not their responsibility, or because they thought there were privacy issues with answering for someone else.

Based on the testing so far ONS have concluded that it will be possible to finalise a question that works and that is broadly acceptable.

Next steps

More detail on the research that we have undertaken will be published alongside our recommendations on questions to be included in the 2021 Census. Final proposals will be published in the census white paper next year.

Updated June 2017

Progress towards meeting user needs for data on armed forces leavers

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) have been working together to determine how best to meet user needs for veterans data.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) have been working together to meet user needs for data about people who have served in the UK armed forces, and their dependents. On 8 November 2016 we held a workshop to better understand the user need for the data. Since then we've met regularly to find the best way to meet that need.

One way is to link an administrative data source holding records of those who have served to 2011 Census data. Counts of armed forces leavers could be produced below local authority level and analysed with other topics for example employment and house ownership.

Both ONS and MOD take the privacy of respondents seriously and good progress has been made to establish a secure and safe route to sharing the data. An application to the Administrative Data Research Network to perform the linkage has been approved and a privacy impact statement has been approved by the National Statistician's Data Ethics Advisory Committee. The administrative data has been transferred to ONS and linkage is underway.

Another way of meeting the need is by including questions on the Annual Population Survey. MOD has commissioned ONS to include 3 questions on the survey since 2014 to identify those who are serving, or have served, in the UK armed forces. The MOD is seeking additional funding for 2 further years of data collection. This could enable them to aggregate the data over 5 years and perform analysis by small geographic areas.

A further way we're working to meet the need is by developing a potential question for the 2021 Census. The question asks if respondents have previously served in a UK armed force and if that was for the regulars or reserves. We're carrying out cognitive interviews with those who are currently serving and those who have left service to understand how the question works. The results of these interviews will tell us what further development and testing needs to take place.

ONS and MOD will continue working together to meet user need and to enable users to meet their responsibilities under the Armed Forces Covenant. We'll continue to give updates on our progress towards linkage, survey development and census question development over the coming months. Progress towards data linkage and question development will be evaluated in late autumn 2017. A recommendation on whether or not the topic will be on the 2021 Census questionnaire will be made in the 2018 White Paper.

Updated February 2017

On 23 May 2016, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published our current view on the topics proposed for inclusion in the 2021 Census. This included a specific report outlining our view on requirements for information on the armed forces community. This position followed a public consultation seeking evidence on the information needs for the 2021 Census which generated nearly 1,100 responses.

Since then, more feedback on the ONS decision not to record veteran service personnel in the 2021 Census has been received from users. This has led ONS and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to establish a working group to better understand the need and the best way to meet that need. The group is meeting regularly to develop and progress 3 potential themes to best meet the information need:

  1. Theme 1 is focusing on better articulating the user requirement for information on armed forces leavers. Input has been sought from across government, local authorities, health care bodies and the charitable sector.

  2. Theme 2 is focusing on making better use of existing data to inform on the needs of armed forces leavers. ONS and MoD are developing a proposal and working through the necessary approvals as a test case for data linkage. This includes the challenges of data release, data security, data matching and analysis. The existing data work is looking at several options. These include anonymously linking MoD administrative data sources to the 2011 Census and further analysis of information collected about armed forces leavers from the Annual Population Survey.

  3. Theme 3 is focusing on census question development. This includes developing and testing a question on armed forces leavers that:

    • would work in the context of the census
    • is readily understood by respondents
    • would produce reliable information

A question in the 2021 Census would provide a useful benchmark when this data becomes available in 2022. However, administrative data held by the Government may offer greater potential. This is because the MoD holds service and pension records electronically, which date back to 1975. This may give us the chance to produce a wider range of official statistics on the armed forces community more often and more promptly. This could then inform policy well in advance of the results of the 2021 Census.

ONS and MoD have met with key stakeholders. These include:

  • the Royal British Legion
  • Department of Health
  • Local Government Association
  • a number of local authorities and county councils with experience in delivering services to armed forces leavers and the armed forces community

The latest meeting on 8 November 2016 enabled ONS and MoD to discuss the 3 themes above in more detail and seek input from stakeholders. A note of the meeting has been published. ONS will continue to engage with stakeholders as the work progresses.