Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Thursday, June 9, 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, NHS Staff Recruitment and Retention, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Census, Covid-19 Inquiry, Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Ukrainian Refugees (Trafficking)
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- NHS Staff Recruitment and Retention
- Business Motion
- Portfolio Question Time
- Covid-19 Inquiry
- Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 3
- Decision Time
- Ukrainian Refugees (Trafficking)
The next item of business is a statement by Angus Robertson on Scotland’s census. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.15:00
On 28 April, I announced to Parliament that the census collection period would be extended until the end of May to give additional time for people who needed it to complete their returns and fulfil their personal legal responsibilities.
We have now reached the end of Scotland’s census 2022 collection period. I am pleased to announce that almost 2.3 million households provided a response, which means that we have achieved a national response rate of 87.9 per cent. Progress has also been made across the country, with 10 local authorities achieving return rates of more than 90 per cent, 28 authorities exceeding the 85 per cent mark and all achieving above 80 per cent.
Scotland’s census 2022 was designed to be a digital-first census, in recognition that that is the most convenient, most accessible and simplest channel for the majority of people. However, even with that innovation, it was never an online-only census; paper options were available throughout to all who preferred them. That is reflected in the split of returns received, which was 89 per cent digital to 11 per cent paper.
I extend my thanks to all households who have played their part and provided a response. Their participation in this once-in-a-decade exercise is hugely important. Their responses will enable better decisions to be made about things that matter, and will help local authorities, businesses and the Government to plan a wide range of vital public services to improve the lives of people living and working in Scotland.
The purpose of the extension period was to drive up national response rates further but also to ensure high levels of returns from each local authority, and to even out variability of returns as much as possible. In context, that means that, since 1 May, which was the original date for closing the census, the national response rate has increased by 8.7 percentage points, from 79.2 per cent, with more than 200,000 additional households being enumerated during May.
The second published target was to achieve a response rate of 85 per cent or more for each local authority area. Significant progress has been achieved in that respect since the beginning of the extension period. On 1 May it had been achieved by only one local authority; it has now been achieved by 28.
I announced to Parliament that up to £9.76 million more investment might be required to deliver the extension to the census collection period during May. That additional funding will be considered during the budget revision process and will be based on the actual additional costs that have been incurred. It is currently forecast to be around £6 million, which equates to 4.3 per cent of the lifetime costs of census 2022.
During the extended collection phase, National Records of Scotland and the Scottish Government implemented a wide range of interventions to increase return rates further. A significant multichannel awareness campaign was continued, including social media, radio and television advertisements reminding people of the importance of completing their census and their legal responsibility. Key milestones were announced periodically by social and print media to increase awareness.
Continued help and support to complete the census were available via the census website and a free helpline. During the census collection extension period, more than 30,700 calls were handled by staff at the contact centre, with more than 214 language interpretations having been offered and 5,314 telephone data captures undertaken.
In addition to the more than 8.8 million letters and postcards that were issued to households, 556,828 paper questionnaires were issued. Census field staff also undertook more than 1.68 million household visits across Scotland, providing in-person support, including doorstep capture, to those who needed it. Seventy-eight per cent of non-responding households received at least one visit. That was a huge feat that was realised only through the hard work and dedication of enthusiastic individuals, which I was able to witness first hand during my own field visit in Easterhouse.
During the extension period, a number of field events took place to encourage census completion where possible, or to generate call-backs from the contact centre until the end of live collection. Those events focused on parts of the country in which there were lower response rates, and on engaging with young people and students, as well as with minority ethnic communities. Locations included faith centres, supermarkets and universities, with field staff being available to assist with census completion at each site.
I would like personally to thank the hundreds of field staff, contact centre agents and census officials who have worked tirelessly over the past few months, providing invaluable support to the people of Scotland to help to ensure that their voices were heard.
Householders also received a range of additional information through the post, including a third reminder letter, a postcard and a further reminder letter for those who had started, but not finished, their census online.
National Records of Scotland also continued to work closely with a wide range of public, private and third sector organisations and faith leaders and representatives. I would like once again to thank those organisations sincerely for their hard work and support in continually promoting the census.
Finally, I would like to thank members again for their support in promoting the census, both at the national level and locally with their constituents. I know that many of them recently took time out of their busy schedules to visit census staff during field visits.
It is clear that there was a need for the extension; unfortunately, there remains a portion of Scotland’s households that have not completed the census. That is despite a large-scale public awareness campaign, millions of letters and more than 1.68 million field visits. It is important that we understand why that happened so that lessons can be learned for the future of the census.
To that end, in the last week of the census collection period, a data collection exercise was undertaken by field staff to understand the reasons for non-completion by householders. Although many reasons were offered by householders, by far the most common, at 35 per cent, was that they were “too busy.” That suggests that changes in society’s attitudes to the census and completing it have had a significant part to play. Once it has been evaluated, this exercise, combined with market research and global experiences, will provide valuable insight into the reasons for non-completion across Scotland.
However, the professional body that is responsible for running the census—NRS—regards the extension to the collection period as a success. It has enabled more than 200,000 additional households to complete their census and has enabled the majority of local authorities to achieve return rates that are greater than 85 per cent, with no authority’s rate being below 80 per cent.
The improved national return rate and the important coverage across the country provide NRS with the confidence to conclude that it is in a good position to move on to the next element of the census—namely, the vitally important census coverage survey—then to the statistical estimation and processing work that is required to deliver high-quality census outputs.
Based on the significant improvement that has been achieved, NRS is satisfied that it was appropriate to conclude the public awareness campaign and field force enumeration on 31 May, as announced. As happened in the censuses that were carried out in the rest of the United Kingdom and in previous censuses, over the coming weeks, NRS will accept late postal and digital returns that have been delayed for legitimate reasons.
Filling in the census is a personal legal responsibility, and allowing people who have previously refused to respond a window in which to do so is standard procedure. In line with previous censuses, anyone who has directly refused to fill in the census has now been written to and given a final opportunity to do so before NRS begins the process of referring them for potential prosecution. However, decisions regarding prosecutions remain a matter for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.
Scotland’s census, in common with other modern censuses, combines a number of elements. Following the collection phase, NRS is now focused on planned post-collection quality control and assurance work, which includes the census coverage survey, which is the second-largest social research exercise in Scotland after the census itself.
The census coverage survey launches on 13 June; the survey was also done in 2001 and 2011 in Scotland. It is a separate survey from the census, and although it covers a much smaller number of Scottish households—about 1.5 per cent, or 53,000 households—it is still the second-largest social research exercise in Scotland after the census itself. It is conducted door-to-door by staff who carry identification, and it ensures that a comprehensive and accurate picture of return rates across the country has been recorded. The census coverage survey provides important information that, along with other administrative data, enables statisticians to estimate the nature and volume of missing census returns, and to deliver the statistical database that is used to deliver outputs.
Over the coming months, statisticians within NRS will also make use of administrative data sources to improve the quality of the estimation work, thereby delivering high-quality population and characteristics data.
An international steering group of global census experts has also been established by the registrar general to help to steer the work of NRS as we move forward from the collection element of the census. The steering group, which is chaired by Professor James Brown, has acknowledged that we are in a strong position from which to move forward. I welcome the contributions that that group will make to steering NRS’s statistical and methodological work over the next few months. That will support NRS to deliver both the census coverage survey and its work to identify the appropriate administrative data that can support quality assurance work.
I am aware that, in recent weeks, much has been made of the response rate, particularly in the light of pre-census targets. I take this opportunity to reassure the people of Scotland that a return rate of 87.9 per cent is a good level of national census returns and puts us in a strong position on which to build.
In conclusion, through a combination of census returns, individual administrative data, the census coverage survey and adjustments using aggregate administrative data, NRS will be able to proceed effectively with the next phase of the census, which is to produce the high-quality outputs that are required by data users.
Finally, I say that one of the aims of Scotland’s census 2022 programme is to make recommendations for future censuses. There have been many important lessons learned over the past few months, and there is much work to do to understand what has worked well and what could have been better. I am clear that the evaluation of Scotland’s Census 2022 will reflect on that in order to make informed recommendations for the future.
The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask a question could press their request-to-speak buttons now.
I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement. However, nowhere in his statement was there mention of the key target figure—the minimum 94 per cent response rate, which was set by NRS. No wonder, because the actual national results are way off that rate.
I will lay out some other facts. The Scottish return rate is almost 10 per cent behind the rate in the rest of the UK. Glasgow, our most densely populated city, is a write-off at 81 per cent, which is not even near what is required, and we have had delay after delay, and an ever-increasing bill for taxpayers.
A few weeks ago, we were told that Scotland’s census had “a solid foundation”—but Scotland’s census lies in ruins. It is a disgrace. The Scottish National Party could have run the census in sync with the rest of the UK last year but, as always, it had to be different. The cost of that decision is now clear for all to see.
Does the cabinet secretary accept that it is highly probable that the census could now be worthless? Does he agree with Mark Roodhouse, who is a fellow of the Economic History Society, who has said that it is likely that there will have to be an interim census or similar statistical exercise between now and 2031 in order to deal with what has happened?
I will begin by saying—because it is important to state it on the record—that it is not the Government that completes individual census returns: doing that is a matter of personal responsibility. I find it passing strange that the party that believes in personal responsibility has drawn absolutely no attention to the fact that it was the decision of people, for a variety of different reasons, not to return their census responses. That is key to understanding the issues that we have faced with the census.
Although 2.3 million households did complete the census, sadly, 316,000 households did not. That is despite 8.8 million letters and reminders—and I am not even counting the public relations campaigns that built on that. I will update Parliament, because I think that the figures are quite enlightening, in order that members better understand the challenge among the parts of the community that did not take part in the census.
Towards the end of May, the census field force asked just over 1,200 people, who had not returned a census form, what their main reasons were for not completing it. There was a wide range of reasons. The headline responses were as follows: 35 per cent of those who were asked stated that their being too busy was the reason, or one of the reasons; 17 per cent stated that they were not aware of the census; and 14 per cent stated that they did not realise that they had to complete it. Concerns about privacy, trust in Government, the nature of the questions and access to a paper copy all came out at 5 per cent or less.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned, but I totally and utterly repudiate Donald Cameron’s assertions about writing off anything in the census. They are false, ill informed, misleading and, frankly, beneath him, because he should know that census experts say that it has “a solid foundation” on which to build.
Sadly, only one Conservative Party MSP could be bothered to turn out for an NRS visit to see how the census was actually being conducted, but I hope that, in time, they will learn from what happened during the census. We all have lessons to learn, but the slightly pathetic party politics that we have heard from the front bench of the Conservative Party add little to the understanding of what has worked well in the census and what needs to be learned from it.
I thank the cabinet secretary for advance notice of his statement.
In 2020, the then Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture said that
“the decision to move Scotland’s Census to 2022”
“the only option in which there is confidence of producing high quality outputs”
deliver the benefits required by the people of Scotland.” —[Written Answers, 13 August 2020; S5W-31002.]
NRS were clear at the time that a response rate of at least 90 per cent was critical to achieving the delivery of high-quality census returns. The cabinet secretary now says not to worry, because the delayed and underperforming census will be sorted through sampling 53,000 members of the public. That is a subset, so how will it reflect the different challenges in different local communities? Will it not be less reliable and less accurate? How will the diversity of Scotland’s population be represented?
I agree with the cabinet secretary that we need to understand what went wrong, but how can we have any confidence in this Government’s promise to learn lessons from this census? There were challenges in and lessons from the 2011 census that needed to be addressed, such as around programme management, data collection, field operation, output content production and dissemination. What went wrong this time? With hard-working staff, I visited residents of a tower block where, just two weeks ago, there was a 57 per cent return rate. How will their needs be met? How many people on low incomes across Scotland, who thought that they had returned the census through digital means, should now be worried about being fined £1,000? Given the cost of living crisis, we need to know the answers to those questions.
I thank Sarah Boyack for her questions on the statement and the many positive points that she made. I also thank her personally for being the only Labour member who went out with the NRS to see how the census was being conducted.
In terms of having confidence, if she is not prepared to listen to what the NRS has to say about things, I point her in the direction of the international steering group, which is made up of experts on the census. For those who are unaware of who is on the group, I can say that it is chaired by Professor James Brown, the Australian Bureau of Statistics professor of official statistics at the University of Technology Sydney. He is joined by Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s national statistician, and Professor David Martin, professor of geography at the University of Southampton and deputy director of the UK Data Service. I could go on, because it includes other colleagues who are eminent in their field of conducting censuses.
I am confident that the exercise that is starting on the 13th of this month will add tremendous value to the work that took place in the census collection period. I know that Sarah Boyack—and others in the chamber who are members of the committee that oversees my portfolio area—will be speaking to the NRS and I am sure that they will be speaking to some of those experts. I hope that Sarah Boyack gets the reassurance that I believe that I have had from the NRS and other experts. Yes, there are lessons that need to be learned, and, yes, we need to make sure that all of Scotland’s communities are reflected in the census data at the end of the process.
That is absolutely mission critical. Yes, we did not reach the 94 per cent target that the NRS wished us to reach—we have got to within 6 points of that target—but that does not call into question the returns of the census. To those who wish to amplify the messages from certain corners of the media—which, sadly, do not understand how censuses are conducted in the 21st century—I say that there are lessons to be learned, but that overexaggeration will not help us to reach the conclusions that we need to reach at the end of every census.
Before I call the next member, I ask for greater brevity in the questions and the answers. I have allowed some latitude for the front-bench speakers, but if we continue in that way, we will not get in everybody who would like to ask a question.
In his statement, the cabinet secretary outlined that the census is not complete, and that a lot of administrative and validation work still needs to be done. Can the cabinet secretary give us an indication of the timescale in which the NRS will be able to answer some of the questions around this year’s census, with a view to informing the learning points that have been identified?
The NRS plans to start publishing results from the census approximately a year after collection, in 2023. Results will be laid before Parliament and made available in a clear and usable form for all users.
Age Scotland chief executive Brian Sloan said that the Scottish Government should “shine a light” on elderly people who risk missing the census deadline. Within three days, elderly pensioners will face criminal records and hefty fines if they are unaware of the census or are unable to complete the form.
What work is the Scottish Government doing specifically to identify older people who might miss the deadline, and will the 12 June date be the final one, even if it means handing out fines and criminal records to vulnerable pensioners?
I say very gently that the member clearly does not understand the process by which the NRS moves on to the next stage of working out who has not returned a census. Prosecution and the involvement of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service impact those who have expressly refused to take part in the census, not those who were unaware of it—there is an important distinction between the two, and it is important that everybody in the chamber understands that.
I can assure the member about the lengths that the NRS has gone to. We do not have time for me to go through the amount of correspondence that has been issued to people and that specifically targets certain parts of the community, including the aged, because the point that the member made is correct. It is mission critical to get the results from that part of the Scottish community. The NRS has been extremely focused on that, as have the enumerators, and I am clear that the returns that they have been getting will be adequately capturing that important part of Scottish society.
I met enumerators in my constituency and heard about some of the challenges that they face, not least with translation. One enumerator spent several hours with one household because of language issues. Will such experiences feed into the work done by the NRS and the international steering group in the future?
Absolutely. I think that I have updated members on how many translation services were offered in the extension period, in addition to the earlier period of the census, across a wide range of languages. If there is any evidence that there is still work to be done in communities for which English is a second language, we absolutely need to learn about that.
I look forward to the work that will be undertaken by the steering group, and if there is anything that can be done to ensure that people fully understand the process in future censuses, that is absolutely a lesson that needs to be learned.
The cabinet secretary talked about the personal responsibility for completing the census, which is correct. However, the figures that he gave us were that 35 per cent of people were too busy to complete the census, 17 per cent said that they were not aware of it, and 14 per cent did not realise that there was a requirement to do it. Who is responsible for the 31 per cent who did not know about it or did not realise that they were responsible?
That is one of the most searching questions that we have had this afternoon. It goes to the heart of trying to understand why there has been a group of particularly hard-to-reach households and individuals during the census.
I am asking myself that question. There were households that received a multitude of correspondence in a variety of formats, and houses that were visited not just once but in many cases twice, three times, four times or five times, and still a significant percentage of people were saying, “I didn’t know it was happening”.
To my mind, that is absolutely the lesson that needs to be learned, because my fear is that that phenomenon is not a one-off. I think that those of us who knock on doors, as we do at election time, will understand some of the phenomenon that I have been trying to describe, but it is something that the international steering group, the Scottish Parliament and the committee will want to look at very closely. If we can get an answer to that challenge, I think that we will be able to see the same kind of percentage returns as in previous censuses.
Having said that, I think that there is a particular challenge with a part of Scottish society. Incidentally, I do not think that this phenomenon is just in Scottish society but will be seen elsewhere. All of us will have to try to work out whether traditional means are meeting the needs of people who do not understand, realise or, perhaps, want to realise that they need to take part in the census.
In my drop-in surgeries in Tesco, I often find elderly people who do not use or have access to the internet or have a mobile phone. Many of them live alone, with perhaps no one to assist them in completing a paper form. What was identified as a factor in non-completion when those non-returning households were visited? What recommendations will fall from that?
One thing that happened during the extended period of the census is that hundreds of thousands of paper copies of the census were sent to hard-to-reach households that had not returned a census online. That was in addition to the paper copies that were sent to those who had rung up and used the service to order them.
To answer Christine Grahame’s question, there were a variety of ways of trying to make sure that gaps could be plugged, if one wanted to assume that issues with digital access were prohibiting people from taking part. Measures were undertaken to try to make sure that people had alternatives. Those included providing paper copies, as well as enumerators turning up at people’s doors and offering to help fill out the forms on paper or online. Great efforts were undertaken, particularly in the extended period of the census, and especially in parts of certain local authority areas and parts of the country where there were much lower returns. Great efforts were made to try to make sure that people could take part in the way that was most appropriate for them.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Given the level of interest and the challenges of time, would you be willing to accept a motion without notice, under standing order 8.14.3, to extend the time for this item of business?
I thank the member for his point of order. I remind him that Parliament has already had an opportunity to consider that matter—it did so on Tuesday, when it chose, in a vote, not to extend the time for this business item.
I am not sure that the minister should be making a virtue of spending only an additional £6 million on the survey and census extension. That is still a huge sum of money that he should not be wasting.
The minister has talked more in his answers about the reasons why we are in this position than he did in his statement. He talked about the data collection exercise that is being conducted. Would he be prepared to publish that data collection exercise so that we can see at an earlier stage what went wrong and learn the lessons for the future now?
I appeal for Willie Rennie to wait for the international steering group to do its work and for parliamentary colleagues on the portfolio committee who will be looking at it to do theirs. If he then has further questions, I am quite happy to entertain any requests for further information that he does not think is in the public realm at the appropriate point. I am sure that the NRS will publish all relevant documentation and data.
I go back to the initial point that Willie Rennie made. Forgive me, I cannot remember whether the Liberal Democrats supported or opposed the extension. [Interruption.] I believe that the Liberal Democrats did not support the extension, which is disappointing because it took 4.3 per cent of additional cost to secure a result that will mean that the census is built on “solid foundations”, to quote the census experts, and I would have thought that we would all have welcomed that.
Willie Coffey is joining us remotely.
Although the cabinet secretary has made it clear that paper copies of the census forms could be requested, I believe that the field force staff continued to recommend online submission during those doorstep reminder visits. Could the cabinet secretary explain why there was still the emphasis on online submission during the collection period and why no paper forms were issued directly as part of those reminder visits?
Cabinet secretary, I hope that you got that.
I did. Just to correct the record, it is not the case, which may be some reassurance to Willie Coffey, that people were only being directed to online returns; they were not. Paper copies were made available by enumerators throughout the country. If that is indeed what people wanted to use to make their return, that is what was made available to them, as was the ability to make a data capture of their return together with enumerators at the doorstep, if that is something that they wanted to undertake. Either the help of the enumerator or a paper copy is what was available to people on the doorsteps of Scotland during the extension period.
I understand that further detailed analysis will be undertaken, but are there any initial indications of any demographic trends within the 12 per cent of households that have not completed the census? For example, is there a risk that we have disproportionately undercounted particular faith groups, ethnicities or socioeconomic groups?
Those are exactly the questions that will be looked at by the international expert panel. Those are the questions that we will all want to know the answers to, not least the NRS. However, we are still in the phase where we have just finished the census collect period, and although participation is not being publicised people are still sending in returns. We will then move on to the next stage of the process, so we will have to wait a short while—I hope that it will not be too long—before we can understand the answers to the questions that Ross Greer is asking, which are, frankly, exactly the right questions.
I fear that Angus Robertson is doing something that I would not normally associate with him, in that in his statement he is insulting the intelligence of many of us here and the people of Scotland. He has actually blamed the people of Scotland for what is a catastrophic failure of the census. In what universe is 87.9 per cent a result to be pleased about? This is genuinely a disaster for all of us. It is another fine mess that the SNP has gotten us into. The target was 94 per cent, not 85 per cent, and the rest of the United Kingdom in 2021 got 97 per cent. The root cause of this is the SNP obsession with divergence and it has cost the people of Scotland in excess of £150 million. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that the Scottish Government has a communications problem, because despite an army of 174 communications managers or spin doctors in the Scottish Government, it has a problem with communicating with the public? What is he going to do about that?
It is interesting that we got to question at the end of that speech. [Interruption.]
Excuse me—could we have less chat across the benches? If the member wishes to stand up and make a point of order then obviously he knows that he can do that. Otherwise, let us move on to get the answer to his question.
Do I believe that the census was adequately communicated in Scotland? Yes, I do. Why do I think that? I did not have time earlier, so perhaps I will take the opportunity to go through this now. These are the lists—these are all the core publications that were sent to households across Scotland in the multiples of millions. Is the member suggesting that people did not receive the letters? Is the member suggesting that they were not visited by enumerators? Is the member suggesting that people did not call and encourage participation? Is he suggesting that the National Records of Scotland did not participate in events the length and breadth of Scotland to encourage people to take part?
If that is the case, the member does not understand the heart of the challenge about the difference between the return rate at the end of the extension period and the 94 per cent target that the NRS wished to achieve. If he is going to continue down that lane, he will not learn the lessons of why a disjunction took place around people receiving the letters—because they did receive letters, postcards and encouragement to take part—but then not taking part. The question why they did not take part is at the heart of the challenge that we will need to meet in future censuses.
Given that the member represents a party that thinks that personal responsibility is an important part of the equation, he, again, has failed to even address that—
Thank you, cabinet secretary. I wish to get in Rona Mackay, who is the last MSP who wishes to ask a question.
It is clear that the census field force staff made a huge effort to maximise census returns in the lead up to the deadline. Does the cabinet secretary hold any data at this stage on the effectiveness of that door-to-door method in increasing understanding of the census and boosting the return rate?
I fear that I do not have time to go into the list of local authorities in order to share with colleagues the difference that the method made during the census extension period, which was most marked in areas that previously had the lowest return rate. It was an extremely effective intervention to get the return rates up.
However, in many parts of the country, notwithstanding multiple visits to households by enumerators, a significant number of householders did not take part in the census. That is at the heart of the lesson that we need to learn from the census to build on the solid foundations that we know we have had, because independent census experts have told us so.
That concludes the statement. There will be a short pause before we move to the next item of business to allow front-bench teams to change positions should they so wish.