Michael Simmons Michael Simmons

Why Scotland’s census blunder matters

Around 700,000 Scottish households – a quarter of the country – are facing £1,000 fines for failing to complete the census. Eleven years ago, the last time the census was run, it took 10 days to reach the current response rate of 74 per cent. This time it’s taken over a month. There’s not much hope in getting the rate up either. Studies from the US show census return rates don’t improve after the first few weeks.

 If 700,000 households are to be fined this would be the largest prosecution in Scottish legal history, probably British too. In 2011 – where the final response rate was 94 per cent and over 90 per cent in all council areas – just five people were reported to prosecutors. By the following February there’d only been one conviction. Given this precedent not to prosecute, as well as the cost of living crisis it is perhaps unrealistic to expect the government to go after the non-returners.

There seems to be a mixture of cock-up and anti-government sentiment

But something needs to be done to boost the return rate. The census acts as the basis for a whole range of national statistics that guide policy.

A notable example of these estimates failing is Scotland’s Covid statistics. After ministers boasted about vaccination rates it emerged that, impressively, some 103 per cent of over-70s had been vaccinated. An impossible achievement: the error was caused by an underestimation of the headcount in certain age groups. That’s worrying because it means we don’t know the true vaccine coverage among vulnerable groups. A lower census return could lead to a widening of the confidence interval around future population estimates.

What’s gone so badly wrong? All we have to go on so far is anecdote but there seems to be a mixture of cock-up and anti-government sentiment. There are complaints of returning the census via the online form and then weeks later receiving angry letters reminding you to fill it out – suggesting the IT may have failed. Trust in the SNP government is undoubtedly a factor too. Some who ascribe sinister motives to a government that has increasingly been criticised for secretive and anti-democratic actions are flatly refusing to share their information. Certain women’s groups are unhappy over the inclusion of questions that allow respondents to self-identify their gender. Legal academic Scott Wortley says the design of many questions has ‘alienated’ people. Was this alienation avoidable?

The census being online for the first time has caused difficulty too. The lack of a free text approach in a paper version puts people into boxes they don’t want to be in. Options provided for white ethnic background don’t include English, for example, despite some half a million Scots being of English origin in the previous census.


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It’s hard to escape the delay to the census as a major factor too. In 2020 the Scottish government took the decision to delay the census citing Covid restrictions. Behind the scenes there were issues with procuring the ‘contact centre’ that would deal with the first ever online census. Covid was perhaps a convenient cover. Either way, it makes it the first census in a 150-year history not to cover all parts of Britain. A decision that was described at the time as ‘an act of scientific vandalism’. In doing so Scotland missed out on the UK advertising campaign which would have considerably helped take-up.

Scotland faces a host of societal crises. The worst drugs deaths in the developed world, high alcohol deaths and falling life expectancies. The gap in living standards between the rich and poor in parts of Glasgow would not be out of place in the third world. To tackle these issues and to scrutinise government, statistics play a vital role. If the response rate can’t be improved it will be a failure of unprecedented scale in the history of Scottish social science.


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