Scotland’s Census 2022

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 28 April 2022.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The next item of business is a statement by Angus Robertson on Scotland’s census 2022.

Members will be aware that there has been some media coverage today, prior to this item of business, stating that the deadline for completion of the census will be extended by four weeks. That is a significant and important piece of information that members would rightly expect to hear first in the chamber. I have met the Minister for Parliamentary Business and have asked for an explanation of how and why it is the case that that information is already in the public domain. The Scottish Government will carry out a thorough investigation and will report back to Parliament.

There is, in the statement, other information that is not covered in the media reports. I will therefore allow the statement to be delivered, in the interests of optimising scrutiny on a subject that affects every household in the country.

I am sure that members share my dismay that we are—yet again—using valuable parliamentary time to address the inappropriate advance sharing of part of a Government statement. That being the case, and given the information that is already publicly available, I will allow the cabinet secretary a reduced time of five minutes. He will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I begin with a fulsome apology that news of the announcement found its way to the media ahead of the statement. We take that very seriously and have commissioned an internal leak inquiry, which will be led by the Scottish Government’s chief information security officer, who will liaise with the lead officials to determine who had access to the information and to check our data systems to see whether the source of the breach can be identified through Government systems.

Census day in Scotland was 20 March 2022. I am pleased to note that well over 2 million households have already submitted their responses. I extend my thanks to all the households that provided responses prior to the deadline. Their participation in this once-in-a-decade exercise is hugely appreciated.

To date, 77.2 per cent of Scottish households have provided a census return. That is a substantial figure, given everything that is happening in the world right now. I understand that many people might be dealing with other concerns. Recent world events have caused anxiety for many people, and have remained a focus for the media—quite rightly—in recent weeks. Closer to home, people are still dealing with the impacts of Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis. Given those challenges, I appreciate that another ask of people is difficult.

However, I cannot stress enough how important it is for the Government to hear the voices of the remaining 604,000 households that are still to return forms before the deadline of Sunday 1 May. That figure includes many thousands of people who have begun the census online but have not yet completed it and thousands of others who have requested a paper copy but have not yet returned it.

That is why I am announcing today that National Records of Scotland will continue to accept census returns until the end of May. In support of that, we will provide an additional budget investment this year of up to 7 per cent of the programme costs, which amounts to £9.76 million. That will allow the census collection period to continue for four weeks, in order to give everybody the opportunity to complete Scotland’s census, and it will allow all outstanding returns to be captured so that everybody’s voice can be heard.

To be effective, a census requires a high response rate and a response that captures the diversity of our communities and their needs appropriately. I reassure members that that is a valuable further investment. Research shows that every £1, or equivalent, that is invested in a census generates £5 to £6 of broader economic benefit.

From 14 February, a significant multichannel awareness campaign was launched, which has included social media, radio and TV advertisements. That continued throughout March and April, reminding people of the importance of completing the census. Continued help to complete the census has been available on the website and via the free helpline on 0800 030 8308. As of 25 April, over 700,000 calls had been made to the contact centre, with over 260 language interpretations having been offered.

Field staff have now undertaken more than 988,000 household visits in Scotland, providing in-person support to people who need it. Households have received a range of information through the post, including an initial contact letter; a census postcard; first, second and third reminder letters; and a final targeted postcard and two reminder letters for those who have started but not finished their census return online.

Extensions to census collection periods have occurred internationally. Countries including Poland, Japan and the United States of America have all taken similar steps in recent years to ensure maximum participation. England and Wales extended its enumeration of some specific communal establishments for three to four weeks in its 2021 census, and Northern Ireland continued to accept returns after its deadline. An extension to a census collection period remains a legitimate and often-used process to facilitate engagement with the census process.

The Scottish Government announced the decision to move Scotland’s census to 2022 following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. That decision was not taken lightly, and it remains the right decision. I am now here to make another important intervention to ensure that we deliver the required benefits for the people of Scotland.

Every household must complete Scotland’s census. In addition to being a civic responsibility, completion of the census is a legal responsibility, as it has always been for previous censuses. Failure to meet that responsibility can result in prosecution, which could lead to a criminal record and a fine. However, the shared focus is—and must be—on ensuring that people are supported and encouraged to complete the census. Help will remain available to people throughout May, via the census website and the free helpline.

Completing the census enables better decisions about the things that matter to us all. It is essential that we maximise participation and ensure that everyone is heard and has their needs captured. It is vital that we secure as high a response rate as possible, so that the census can be effective in delivering its many benefits for future public services.

I thank those who have already completed their census, and I urge those who have still to do so to act now.

The Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for that, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

I will be clear. The Scottish National Party Government’s handling of Scotland’s census has been nothing short of disastrous. It was needlessly delayed by a year; it cost taxpayers an extra £30 million; and, as of today, around a quarter of households in Scotland are still to respond.

The SNP ignored our calls to hold the census in sync with the rest of the United Kingdom, when they would have benefited from a UK-wide publicity campaign that managed a 97 per cent response rate. Despite our warnings, the SNP insisted on going it alone and delaying the census until this year, claiming at the time that that would ensure the highest possible response rate. Today, however, we learn that the opposite is true. All of this represents a significant failure by the Scottish Government that will have serious long-term implications for public policy making.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that it was a mistake to delay the census? Can he guarantee that there will be no further delays beyond the end of May? What support is being given directly to councils to get this census back on track and to urgently boost the response rate?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

I welcome the acknowledgment by Donald Cameron and the Conservative Party of the importance of the census and of successfully completing it. I also put on record the positive co-operation that he and spokespeople from other parties have given to promoting participation in the census. I underline that the key message from today is that everyone who has yet to complete and submit a census return should, please, do so as soon as possible.

I have already addressed a number of the three questions that Donald Cameron asked in succession. First, it was not a mistake to hold the census on an appropriate date that was not in the middle of the pandemic. Secondly, I do not believe that there will be further delays.

When it comes to council support, which was the most constructive element of Donald Cameron’s intervention, it is right to say that there is a variance in the rate of census returns in different parts of the country, and he can rest assured, as can members across the chamber, that there are very specific interventions, especially in council areas in which rates of return are lower. Just one example of that is the targeting of enumerators to conduct their work especially in areas in which there are lower rates of return, to make sure that those can be maximised at the present time and in the weeks ahead.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for sight of his statement, and I agree that the census is absolutely vital to planning ahead—by the Scottish Government for services that our constituents need and by the councillors who will be elected next week, to tackle inequalities in our communities.

What work was done to analyse the impact of not using a paper response form in relation to people who are not digitally connected—from the length of time that it took for people to get through on the phone to get a paper copy, to people simply not getting around to it because a paper copy was not distributed to everyone? What work was done to analyse the response rate and the timescales, in comparison with previous years, in order to avoid today’s last-minute decision to extend the timescale, potentially incurring a cost of nearly £10 million in the process?

From within the system, numerous concerns have been raised for some time now about problems of outsourcing, information technology, recruitment and accessibility. Why was the process outsourced from local authorities to the Pertemps recruitment agency? What measures were taken to account for Airbnbs and other temporary accommodation, so that the entire process was more cost effective?

As the cabinet secretary has said, some houses will have got multiple letters, envelopes, census notification cards and reminders. All of that is rather more than an envelope with a form. As the cabinet secretary has told us, thousands have started but not yet completed the digital form, and enumerators will now have to tour our communities. Would the higher rates that we have seen in previous years have been achieved if we had all simply been sent a paper copy at the start?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

Sarah Boyack has asked a long series of questions. Forgive me if I do not answer them all. I will endeavour to write back and answer any specific questions that I am not able to answer now.

Given that we are in the process of delivering the census, I welcome the tone and content of Sarah Boyack’s questions. She, too, has been a strong voice for participation in the census. With the continuing promotion and participation of MSPs of all parties, I am confident that we will help to boost the numbers considerably in the days ahead.

On the issue of digital versus paper returns, Sarah Boyack and other members will be aware that this census is the first that has significantly focused on trying to maximise digital returns. The figures are running at around 90 per cent of returns being made via digital means, and 10 per cent being paper returns. Anybody and everybody who would prefer to make a paper return can do so.

One element that Sarah Boyack omitted in her questions relates to the rate of return from people who have been issued with paper returns. That is one of the lessons that we are having to learn. We are trying to understand that right now. The issue of non-returns or non-returns before the 1 May deadline—obviously, we still have a number of days until then—does not relate to just digital technology. There are literally tens of thousands of people who have been sent any number of written interventions encouraging them to take part and have gone as far as ordering a paper census copy, but have not yet returned it. We can all consider the different reasons why that might be the case.

Sarah Boyack pointed to something that is quite important. We need to get to the bottom of why people who have been repeatedly encouraged in paper form and by house visits to reply have not yet replied. We will have to understand that better. Research on that is on-going, and research is being commissioned to try to understand that better.

Sarah Boyack will understand that we are now in a golden hour in which there will be heightened awareness of census returns. Now is the time for us to send the message as loudly and clearly as we can to people out there who have yet to return their census form: “Please do it. Now is the time.”

There are many lessons to be learned, some of which Sarah Boyack has pointed to. In particular, she made points about who is conducting different bits of the process. It would be most welcome to have any detail that she might have on any areas in which it is apparent to her that there are shortcomings in the process because, obviously, if it is possible to do census collection in the future within the defined timescale, that is eminently preferable to having to extend the timescale. However, as I have already pointed out, extending the census deadline is becoming ever more the norm in a number of countries, including other nations on these islands.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

For the benefit of people at home or people who may be watching this later and who have not yet completed the census, will the cabinet secretary outline how completing the census benefits people in Scotland and aids policy making?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

The census is incredibly important. It takes place only every decade—every 10 years—and it is the official count of every person and household in the country. Scotland has relied on the information that the census provides for more than 200 years. It remains the best way to gather vital information that the Government, councils, the national health service and a range of users in the public, private and third sectors need, and the results help local authorities, businesses and the Government to plan a wide range of vital public services to improve the lives of those who live and work in Scotland.

That is all the more reason why any people who are wondering why it is so important for them to return their census should do so in the days ahead and should not delay. We are doing everything that we can to drive up the participation numbers in the 2022 census. Anybody who is listening to our deliberations now has a better understanding of why it is so important and I appeal to everybody to take part in the census as a matter of priority.

Photo of Sharon Dowey Sharon Dowey Conservative

England and Wales, which held their censuses as normal, have seen high levels of returns—in fact, they saw a 97 per cent return rate, which was above their expected target of 94 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has more than 600,000 outstanding households—a staggering 23 per cent of the population—and has had to extend the deadline by a month. That is only the latest in a long line of SNP communication failures.

My colleague Maurice Golden warned the SNP of that impending disaster but was ignored. Clearly, the current approach is not working, so what further incentives and targeted support is the Scottish Government offering to respondents?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

Forgive me, but I do not know whether Sharon Dowey was in the chamber at the start of the statement, when I pointed out that, even in the census—[


.] She was here, so she will have heard that, in the census in England and Wales that she cites, there was an extension for institutions. The issues are not specific to Scotland. There is a wider list of other countries that have had to make use of an extended period to reach census targets. That is becoming the norm. That is point 1.

Point 2 is more important. What targeted measures can be used to ensure that people are aware of the deadline and that they understand that they have a legal requirement to take part in the census and that there are potentially serious consequences to not taking part in it? One of the reasons for extending the period is that I would far prefer to encourage people to take part. They still have the days until 1 May, although I would prefer that people do it before 1 May. However, even if we do that we would not reach the required targets. That is why the time period has been extended.

I would be happy to write to Sharon Dowey, to go through the full list of interventions that are under way, because I probably do not have enough time now. She can take it from me that we are doing everything that we can to help to get responses. I encourage her and her colleagues, many of whom write columns every week—there is plenty of content in the matter for the next four weeks—to encourage their readers and supporters to take part in the census to ensure that it is as representative as possible. I look forward to reading all their columns with great interest in the weeks ahead.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

How many people have started their census returns online but not yet completed them?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

That is one of the really interesting and curious aspects of the census process that we are trying to understand. Approximately

68,000 people have started the census online and not completed it. People might have different understandings of why that has happened. National Records of Scotland estimates that about 600,000 households have yet to return a completed census. The good news is that, so far, 2,045,000 households have returned their census forms.

One of the jobs that we have to do is to encourage people who have started the census form to finish the process. They should check that they have clicked send to submit it. Equally, people who have started the process with a paper version should make sure that they submit it. Everybody else who has not yet started should do so as a matter of priority.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

To pursue the previous question, my understanding—admittedly from subjective evidence—is that some people who started their census returns online struggled to get back into them because of the problem with the passwords but then started a fresh one, which they managed to complete in a single sitting. Is the cabinet secretary confident that we do not have duplicated figures, with the same person being counted as both having returned and not having returned their census form?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

Martin Whitfield asks a very important question. I have been asking for confirmation that there is no chance of duplication. I assume that every member present has submitted their census form—I hope that they have—and that they are aware that there is an individual code that relates to a household. I do not believe that it is, in an IT sense, possible for somebody to submit again with the same code. That is one of the points that can and will be considered.

The issue of IT is a wider one. The member made a point about what he conceded was subjective information about some people having experienced IT challenges—and no doubt, as we all have IT challenges with all kinds of systems. I therefore wish to take the opportunity to say that, if anybody has any question about anything relating to their submission, they should call the census hotline, which can explain, help and support. Again, the number is 0800 030 8308. People can also visit the census website at Let us use every opportunity that we can to explain to people that it is not a complicated process, and it does not take a lot of time—but please, get it done.

For anybody who has any problems—and we know that all kinds of people have linguistic or IT-related issues, for instance—there are a series of interventions and support measures in place. Please use them, so that we can complete the census successfully.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary will recall that I previously raised the issue of the census question on the use of Scots, which some constituents found unclear. He quite rightly directed me and others to consider the guidance, which is helpful. I ask the cabinet secretary to repeat some of the languages that come under the umbrella of Scots, so that people know what to put in. For Jackie Dunbar’s benefit, I can say that Doric is included.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

Indeed. The census 2022 question helps respondents in that it says that it is up to them to decide whether they and those who they are responding for can understand, speak, read or write Scots, and to select all that apply. The question help states that Scots is spoken all over Scotland; it is the collective name for Scottish dialects such as Glaswegian, Doric, Buchan, Dundonian, Shetland and many others. As I said to Martin Whitfield, where respondents remain unsure about that or any other question, they should visit the website or call the helpline. There are also audio clips at related to Scots. There is a lot of information out there, and there is really no reason why people should not be able to have the information that they require to complete the census.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I seek advice from the cabinet secretary on what support is available for those with a hearing impairment to complete the census, given the correlation between hearing impairment and older age and the correlation between that and lack of digital access. There is a group of people in Scotland, including a number of constituents who have contacted me, who are unable to receive support either online or via the advice line.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

T hat is a very good question from Ross Greer. National Records of Scotland has ensured that people are able to access a range of help and support to help them do that. That includes individual question help, advice on how to complete the census online, mechanisms for ordering paper and individual forms and, specifically, language and accessibility support in British Sign Language, EasyRead, audio, Braille and large print, as well as translated guidance and language support.

In addition to that, census field staff are providing further face-to-face support, as required. Anybody who needs that kind of support should avail themselves of it. It is there, and people are there to help. People should not feel that they are alone. If they have any of those impairments, they should get the support and complete the census, because we want everybody from all parts of Scotland with all kinds of lived realities to be reflected fully in the census. That includes people who have the kinds of impairment that Ross Greer rightly highlights.

Photo of Evelyn Tweed Evelyn Tweed Scottish National Party

Not everyone will be able to or will wish to complete their census online. Can the cabinet secretary advise how someone can request a paper copy?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

The simple answer to that, which I think I have mentioned a number of times now, is to call the helpline to ask for a copy to be sent. I should mention, in part reflecting an earlier question from the Conservative benches, one of the mitigations and interventions that is taking place: a significant number of print copies of the census are being sent directly to households that have not requested them but that have not taken part in the census thus far. Not only can people order them and call the helpline to get support; copies are also being sent out by post to a significant extent.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

T he census once again shows that the Scottish Government has a serious problem with public awareness campaigns, as with interlinked fire alarms, which nearly half of people did not install on time, and as with FACTS, as a poll found that only 1 per cent of people could identify the meaning of all five letters. Why?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

Maurice Golden has asked a good question, given that households have received an initial contact letter, a postcard, an online reminder letter, a household reminder letter, a household gentle reminder letter, a household firmer reminder letter, an online reminder, information about an individual access code request and a second internet access code request letter. There are further publications—

I could go on.

Every household has received significant information about the importance of the census, the responsibility to take part and the guidance about how one might do that. We are having to communicate more because, for some people, clearly that has not been enough. We have to learn the lessons about why that is, because it seems to me that receiving so much information would be enough—we would have hoped—to inform people and encourage them to take part in the census. Clearly, that has not been enough, and lessons need to be learned from that.

It is not just that direct communication has been made to households; we have also had a very significant public information campaign. Maurice Golden is right to say that there are people who have not heard that or have not responded to it. Both things may be true. We need to learn the lessons from that. I made a point in my initial statement that this is not just a scenario that has taken place in Scotland—the same has happened in England and Wales, where an extension was deemed necessary for certain classes of respondents, and in a number of countries, including the United States of America, there was also an extension. No doubt, there are lessons to be learned, but it is not as simple as suggesting that, for some reason, there has not been enough public information. There has been a lot of public information. The question is, why have people not responded in the way that one might have hoped and expected?

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

To follow on from the last question, can the cabinet secretary confirm that community and stakeholder engagement to promote Scotland’s census will continue until the end of May?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

The simple answer is yes. The relationship with external stakeholders is one aspect of the census process in which a lot of weight has been invested. I take the opportunity to thank the likes of Scotland’s local authorities, the national health service and many other bodies that have been trying to amplify the public information message about the importance of taking part in the census. An engagement process about the extended period for census returns will be rolled out to make sure that all our stakeholders and third-party partners that are promoting the census and participation in it will play their full role in the next few weeks ahead. As I have already said, that includes MSPs across the chamber. All those parties will help to make sure that the message is getting through to everyone and that there is an understanding that we must all take part in Scotland’s census 2022.

Photo of Douglas Lumsden Douglas Lumsden Conservative

The cabinet secretary mentioned that an extra £10 million will now have to be spent on trying to get the census completed. Can he explain which budget line that extra £10 million will come from? Will he apologise to the people of Scotland because, once again, the Government is over time and over budget?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Scottish National Party

I take it from Duncan—forgive me, I mean Douglas—Lumsden’s question that he is keen that the census is successful and is completed and that we reach the targets. On that basis, given the evidence that I shared earlier about the value-for-money nature of the census, I think that it is money well spent to make sure that we complete it. The money will come from the Scottish Government’s budget. People in National Records of Scotland are working hard to try to make sure that we do not need to draw down the full extent of the funding that has been allocated. That is a significant part of why I am taking this opportunity to ask, repeatedly, that we all please do as much as we can to make sure that, in the parts of society that we reach in different ways, we encourage people to take part.

This is not a politicised exercise; it is about good public administration. The fact is that there is cross-party support for the census—notwithstanding the tone of some interventions. I think that it is still the formal position of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish National Party to support the census. Given that, I would be grateful for the member’s support and I look forward to reading his column on the subject in the weeks ahead.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the ministerial statement on Scotland’s census 2022.