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Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, September 22, 2022

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Pre-budget Scrutiny, Scotland’s Census


Scotland’s Census

The Convener

The next item is to continue to take evidence on Scotland’s census. I welcome Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture; Paul Lowe, registrar general from National Records of Scotland; Pete Whitehouse, director of statistical services from National Records of Scotland; and Penelope Cooper, director of culture and major events at the Scottish Government.

I invite the cabinet secretary to make a brief opening statement.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

Following the closure of the main census collect period on 31 May, on 22 August, the census coverage survey also came to an end. Although that may mark the end of live operations for Scotland’s census 2022, it certainly does not mark the end of the work that is required to deliver high-quality census outputs.

Scotland’s census is a highly complex programme that, in common with other modern censuses, consists of many elements. Although it is understandable that much of the focus so far has been on the public-facing elements of the census—particularly the census return rate—that is not the deciding factor in determining whether a census has or has not been a success. As the international steering group set out in the paper that it provided to the committee, and as Professor Sir Ian Diamond and Professor David Martin explained during the evidence session two weeks ago, it is the combination of three pillars that will deliver the high-quality census outputs that users require. Those are high-quality census returns, of which an almost 90 per cent return rate has been achieved; a coverage survey and peer reviewed statistical techniques; and the use of high-quality administrative data.

This was the first primarily online census and generally that worked well, with 89 per cent of respondents completing online. That exceeded NRS’s target of 75 per cent and clearly indicates a strong preference for the majority of citizens to use digital rather than paper completion. That shift in public preference should be taken into account for any future census exercise or similar significant public engagement. The census was also the most flexible one ever delivered, with options for completion digitally, by paper form and through assisted completion by telephone or field force.

Despite concerns, the month-long extension to the collection period led to a significant improvement of return rates at national and local levels. The national return rate increased by 10 percentage points since 1 May but, crucially, the extension also ensured that there was enhanced coverage across the country, with 30 of the 32 local authorities achieving return rates of more than 85 per cent and no authority achieving less than 83 per cent. Eighteen of those local authorities achieved a return rate that was greater than 90 per cent.

There are, however, emerging indications of shifts in public attitude in Scotland to the importance of the census, and there is a need to understand that. However, that phenomenon appears not to be restricted to the census, and is emerging in other areas such as completion rates in broader Scottish social surveys. The committee recently heard from Sir Ian Diamond that that trend has been seen in declining participation rates across recent years. As such, it will be important to understand and plan for such an event up-front in the design and risk management for any future census.

However, with a final return rate of 89.2 per cent, I hope that committee members, and indeed the public, are reassured by the words of the members of the international steering group who, in their submission to the committee’s inquiry, noted that they

“consider that the main census enumeration has provided the foundation for a high-quality set of census outputs, in terms of coverage of the population”,

as well as Sir Ian Diamond’s evidence that the census in Scotland will still produce “really good” data.

As recommended by the international steering group, NRS is working at pace to secure the necessary access to key administrative data sets for the purpose of census estimation and adjustment. That expansion and enhancement of administrative data use beyond the original plans for estimation of census response will put NRS in a strong position to deliver a high-quality set of census outputs for Scotland’s 2022 census.

The Scottish Government and NRS are extremely grateful for the time and expertise that the international steering group continues to provide as it moves through planned post-collection quality control and assurance work. In the coming months, NRS will continue to focus on planned post-collection quality control and assurance work to deliver the high-quality census outputs that users require.

Finally, I put on record my thanks to the millions of households who participated in Scotland’s census 2022.

I look forward to answering your questions.


The Convener

I open with a question about criticism of the decision to delay the census. The committee has since heard a lot of evidence about it not being reasonable to compare National Records of Scotland with the UK Statistics Authority in terms of capacity, budget and where they were in their analysis of the data. Now that we have a better understanding of that, are you content that it was the right decision to make for the quality of the census?

Angus Robertson

Yes, I am content. I am looking back at decisions that were made at the time, which I did not play a part in, but it is obviously important to look at those decisions and try to understand the rationale behind them.

First, there is an international context. Out of 83 nations that planned to conduct censuses over that period, 59—71 per cent—delayed their census field collections. That includes not only Scotland but Germany, Italy and Ireland. I can provide the list to the committee if members wish to know about the other nations among that 71 per cent that made the same decision. Only 10 countries—12 per cent—in that period proceeded with their field collection as previously planned.

I am satisfied with the rationale, but I do not lose sight of the fact that the advice to the public was to minimise contact with one another. The wider context was of holding a census during the biggest pandemic in 100 years, so I am content that the correct decision was made. Now that we know that we are within touching distance of a 90 per cent return rate for the census and can be assured that the quality of the data is of the standard that is required to complete the census, I think that the right decision was made.

I move to questions from members.

Sarah Boyack

Cabinet secretary, you refer to changes in society’s attitude, which you also referenced in your ministerial statement. How much work have you done on that issue? You just flagged that other countries delayed their censuses, but what are the comparative differences with the 2021 census in the rest of the UK in terms of low-turnout areas, and what lessons do you draw from those differences? What will the issues be going forward, because we have not had the same level of lower turnout rates historically?

Angus Robertson

We could probably use all the time in the session to discuss that question, because it is the nub of trying to understand the experience of the recent census process here and what will be required at the time of the next census to make sure that we collect the appropriate quality of data from society.

Throughout the census collection period, I spent a lot of time with my professional colleagues, who are here and online, trying to understand the phenomenon of reduced collection rates in certain parts of the country. I will let them do some of the technical statistical explanation of that.

I should say that the issue is being evaluated currently, so you are asking us to take the temperature of that issue on the basis of what we understand thus far without having completed all the work.

I am sitting giving evidence to colleagues who are unusual in society, in that, as MSPs and candidates, we spend a lot of time knocking on doors. I am appreciative that Ms Boyack and a number of other MSPs took the time to go and see how the census was being collected. Having been out, she was able to see the phenomenon that is, I think, entirely consistent with what we as members of the democratic political community are aware of—namely, that there is a reducing rate of participation in elections, reducing turnout, reducing rates of data that we are able to collect when we do doorstep visits and higher numbers of people saying that they are not prepared to say how they are thinking about voting at election times. We hear a variety of reasons to explain why they will not take part.

Before the end of the census collection period, I said to colleagues at NRS that I thought that it would be particularly important to understand, in qualitative and quantifiable terms, the reasons why people were not participating—the reasons that they were giving, as opposed to others’ interpretation. The answers are really quite instructive. They are worth sharing with the committee so that they are on the record.

The answers come from 1,200 people who had not returned their census forms, making it larger than a standard opinion poll sample size. They were asked their main reasons for not completing the form—why they were not doing so. The biggest reason, for 35 per cent of people, was that they felt that they were too busy—that they did not have enough time. The next biggest reason, for 17 per cent of people, was that they were not aware of the census. The next biggest, for 14 per cent of people, was that they did not realise that they had to complete it. Lastly—all of which came in as reasons for 5 per cent of people or less—were concerns about privacy, trust in Government, the nature of questions, access to paper and so on. I imagine that members would recognise that kind of response from the times that we knock on people’s doors.

We should not lose sight of the fact that, by the end of the process, nigh on 90 per cent of people had returned their census form. The question is: how much more does one need to do in 2022, or in 2031 or 2032, by the time the next census comes around, to maintain that high level and high return rate?

My colleagues who are much more versed in the statistical side will be aware of this, but I note that New Zealand is about to undertake its census—next year, I think—and has set its target for a return rate of 90 per cent. My observation is that we are seeing a phenomenon here in Scotland that is not unique; indeed, it is occurring in other countries. The question is: what can we learn from our experience so that we can maximise the rate of return next time round?

I am sorry—I do not want to hog the microphone if colleagues from NRS want to make a contribution. A lot of evaluation work is being undertaken, which will no doubt be shared with the committee when it is published. Do colleagues wish to flag anything in relation to my answer to Ms Boyack?

I think that Mr Whitehouse wants to come in.

Mr Lowe, if you could raise your hand if you want to come in; I can see you on screen.

Peter Whitehouse (National Records of Scotland)

The way that I look at it is that, as Professor David Martin and Sir Ian Diamond talked about, we know that there are areas of the country where response rates are lower. They are lower in the English and Welsh survey and in the Northern Ireland survey. We therefore know going into our census that there is more difficulty around getting responses in certain areas, which is why we skew a lot of our work, effort and communications to get to those areas and communities. We need to evaluate and work out how effective that has been and whether there are other variations that one can employ.

The point coming through is that the general nature of the issue is people not wishing to respond to surveys and censuses in the same way—and that is across the globe. That is the same point that the professors talked about.

When we look at our census, we now need to look at a programme of work that has that big data collection at its absolute centre, if we are to do something that is akin to the 2022 model. As I have said, that involves 2.3 million households responding, which means vast amounts of information. We understand where we have missed households and we do complex statistical work—Sir Ian Diamond talked about how he is interested in and excited by the opportunity to do that, as am I as a professional statistician, because it is interesting and solves a problem.

Into that space goes much more use of administrative data. The benefit is that the good data that we hold, whether that is in our health system or elsewhere, helps us to understand the communities from which we have not had returns and therefore to get a good estimate of the population. It also helps us to do good statistical estimation of the nature and characteristics of those communities. As we know, some of the communities that will benefit most from census outputs are those where response rates have been more challenging. That is why we need to do our estimation work now with administrative data to unpick the situation and provide the best-quality data, which is our ambition.

As the cabinet secretary said, such problems exist around the globe. A benefit of having the international steering group and the international census community is being able to explore and invest in such work. That is one of our lessons learned.

Paul Lowe (National Records of Scotland)

I will add a couple of points. We noted the phenomenon in the evidence session back in June. Even if we look at our own census in Scotland, the response rates were 96 per cent in 2001 and 94 per cent in 2011, so there has been evidence over the past couple of censuses of response rates gradually reducing.

Like the Office for National Statistics and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, we expected to attempt to get a response rate of more than 90 per cent, which would mirror the rate for the census in 2011. We got just under 90 per cent, which is a good and robust response.

As others have said, the challenge is being seen around the globe. The cabinet secretary referred to the 2023 census in New Zealand, where censuses are taken every five years. For the 2018 census there, the response rate was 83.3 per cent, which is notably lower than the position in Scotland, but New Zealand still produced credible census outputs with that response rate.

As Pete Whitehouse said, we are seeing such issues with other social surveys that the Scottish Government does—big social surveys that members will be aware of, such as the Scottish crime and justice survey, the Scottish health survey and the Scottish household survey, which are run as doorstep surveys. In the run-up to 2019 and 2020, all of them showed progressively reduced response rates. They are voluntary surveys, so people can decline to participate, but that points to the broader trend. The ONS’s labour force survey has also seen declining returns that are now in low 50 per cent territory.

The phenomenon is not unique to the census, but it prompts the question of what we do if society’s attitudes are shifting and how we increasingly build that into the design of future census activity.

Sarah Boyack

Thank you for those responses. It is clear that the issue has arisen in much lower-income areas. On communications with those communities, I asked about lessons from across the UK on numbers and outputs. People were surprised by the lower response rates. What lessons about communications for the future does the cabinet secretary draw from the census? Do we need education and stronger communications before the census, so that people are aware of it and prioritise it, given that important decisions are subsequently made on the basis of returns?


Angus Robertson

First of all, it is important to understand the context of the communication with households, because some people seem to have the impression that there might have been too little communication—communication about the fact that there was a census, why there was a census, its importance, its relevance and one’s responsibility for taking part—and that it might have been explained in ways that were difficult for people whose first language is not English or for people who have other access issues.

All those considerations were explored fully before the beginning of the census, which led to a, frankly, gigantic communication effort. I will spare the committee my running through every individual type of communication that was sent out to households in Scotland. However, here are some figures, for reference—for scale and so that it is on the record. There were 2.7 million initial contact letters; 1.4 million initial reminders; 1.1 million second reminders; 679,000 further reminders; up to five reminders for every non-responding household; 351,000 paper questionnaires that were requested by households; and 165,000 paper questionnaires that were proactively sent out on a targeted basis to help people to complete the census. Those are the figures for proactive communication directly with households. In addition, census field staff visited 680,000 households and made a total of 1.6 million household visits. They handed out 92,000 paper questionnaires to households. I could go on about the work of the contact centre, the number of times that the website was used and so on.

It is difficult to understand why people could have the opinion that they did not know anything about the census when so much was delivered to their household or when, in the case of some households, up to 10 visits were made by NRS enumerators. Ms Boyack is absolutely right to point out that in particular areas—areas of certain sociodemographics—the rate of return was lowest. However, I have to say that those areas were where the degree of effort to communicate with people was highest and most targeted, and was most targeted from the start. During the collection process, where there was a divergence between the projected and actual rates of return, there was a significant targeted effort to ensure that the gap could be closed in areas with the lowest rates of return.

This is the heart of the conundrum: we have people saying, “I did not know about the census,” “I did not understand why it was important,” or “I did not have enough time to do it,” although the process ran over months, and we have to weigh that with the fact that people were communicated with.

On that point, I talked about the direct communication that was carried out. On general societal communication, television adverts ran 561 times—68 per cent of the Scottish adult population saw them at least once, and 51 per cent of the Scottish adult population saw them at least three times—and radio adverts ran 11,873 times. The idea that the census was not communicated or was not communicated effectively just does not stand up to any fair scrutiny.

However, there is clearly a disconnect. That was, in part, because, as some people have explained, they did not complete the census because they were not aware of it, did not have enough time or because of the other reasons that we know about. It was also, in part, because—notwithstanding the fact that there was extremely full-spectrum communication, from mail to doorstep visits to very high-profile advertising—a proportion of the population was extremely difficult to reach. Ms Boyack will have had the experience of watching enumerators going to door after door after door with people not being in, and the experience of seeing people answering their doors saying that they were not going to take part.

Was that about a moment in time? I am not sure that it was, for the reasons that Paul Lowe has mentioned, given the international and comparative information that we are aware of. Does that mean that we should not think about things and learn lessons? Absolutely not.

This is where I come to Sarah Boyack’s question, which was about what we can do, and what we can do more of. Her point about education is a good one. Especially in communities that have the lowest rates of return, what can be done in advance of the census, to increase understanding in family households, for example? One could do more of that. Incidentally, that happened in Scottish schools in the run-up to the census. Again, an effort was undertaken in advance. Should we do more of that? Yes.

I look to my colleagues to give more information, if anybody has ideas about other ways of reaching hard-to-reach communities.

The number of third sector organisations that played a part in census 2022 is remarkable. The number of organisations across Scotland runs into the hundreds—from faith groups and community groups to charities and employers, who were doing their best, internally, to help to explain things to attendees at the mosque or to people who used certain charitable services, for example. The examples go on.

Every effort was undertaken to think about how to reach people, especially the people who are hard to reach. At one stage, the offer was made to members of the Scottish Parliament to provide leadership in communities in which return rates were low, and to church ministers to do likewise. We tried to harness all available routes especially in order to reach communities in which return rates were lowest.

On that final point, during the extension period, the direction of enumerators to parts of the country in which the rate of return was lowest was absolutely scientific. It was about where the lowest return rates were and where our enumerators were trying to drive the rate up. They were even trying to do that on the doorstep through direct manual completion of the census, standing in front of people at the doorstep, or helping people with written questionnaires, in the communities in which the return rate was lowest.

Did that work? Absolutely it did, because the biggest changes in rates of return were in the parts of the country for which the rates of return had been lowest, for the social and demographic reasons that Sarah Boyack has identified.

Can more be done? There is no doubt that it can. However, I would definitely not want people on the committee and elsewhere to be under the impression that there was not a significant effort, across all means, to try to get the maximum return rate. There most certainly was.

Donald Cameron

I thank the cabinet secretary and his officials from NRS and elsewhere.

My first question is about the cost of the census. You indicated in June, I think, that the extension came with an additional cost of approximately £9 million, although that was revised. What was the final cost of the extension and the final total cost of the census?

Angus Robertson

The additional expenditure was £6 million. That equates to 4.3 per cent of the £138.6 million lifetime cost for the May 2022 census. The extension increased the lifetime cost of the census to £144.6 million. and added 4.3 per cent to the cost of the census.

What was the final total cost of the census?

It was £144.6 million.

Donald Cameron

Thank you for that.

I will move on to the concept of lessons learned. You will be aware of the evidence that Sir Ian Diamond gave last week. To be fair, I note that you gave a commitment in the chamber earlier this year on learning lessons.

This is not to revisit old ground, but the stark reality of Scotland’s census is that it was approximately 8 per cent to 9 per cent behind the census in the rest of the UK in 2021. In addition, certain areas of Scotland—in particular Glasgow, which is our biggest city—had a very low rate, of around 81 per cent, in comparison with other areas. When you undertake the lessons-learned exercise, will you commit specifically to examining the disparity between Scotland and the rest of the UK and the disparity within Scotland, among local authority areas? That has emerged as a key issue this year in the course of parliamentary scrutiny.

Angus Robertson

Yes, yes and yes. It is entirely reasonable to ask why there were varying rates of return between Scotland and the rest of the UK; it is a perfectly reasonable question to try to get to the bottom of. However, we should also be comparing our experience with experience elsewhere, especially in the rest of the industrialised world and especially through sociodemographic comparisons, to see where there are similarities and differences.

We are not yet at the end of the process of understanding the differences, but it is unavoidable to conclude that people being in their houses during the pandemic was a significant contributory factor in the ability to reach people—especially those from more challenged sociodemographic backgrounds.

I am not sure whether Mr Cameron was one of the MSPs who went out and saw the census collection. He is indicating that he was not able to see it. MSPs saw the efforts that went into knocking on doors again and again to try to reach people. If people are not in, which was happening a lot, it is difficult to get them to take part in the process. This is an unscientific conclusion, but I draw it as a non-statistician, and not as a census professional, but one might conclude that there is definitely something in that. However, that does not make me revisit the question whether the timing and the decision in Scotland were correct or not. I think that the decision that was taken in Scotland—as it was in the majority of countries—to not go out and send thousands of people into communities to knock on doors and have face-to-face conversations with people at a time when we were telling them not to do that, was the right response.

To answer Mr Cameron’s question whether we should be trying to learn every lesson from the experience in Scotland, in the rest of the UK and in the rest of the world, especially in countries with which we can compare ourselves best, I say that we absolutely should do that. The reason why is that I think that we are dealing with a societal trend; I do not think that we are dealing with a specific moment in time. If it was about a specific moment in time, it might have been in countries where a census was conducted during a lockdown. The rest of us are dealing with an on-going trend, and we are going to have to work out how to get information from people, in this context as in many other areas, when they do not want to provide it, do not trust the process, do not understand it or do not have enough time, as people said were their reasons for not taking part.

Thank you for those answers, which I wish to follow up. Will you commit to publishing the lessons-learned document for the benefit of Parliament?

Angus Robertson

It is for NRS to make decisions as to what it will publish. However, I want maximum transparency so that not only NRS but Government ministers and the people who hold us to account can understand the lessons.


Donald Cameron

Can you also include, please, the impact of having included in the census what might be described as sensitive questions? Maurice Golden, who is not here today, raised that interesting point last week with Ian Diamond. Could you explore that and reflect upon it?

Angus Robertson

I am in favour of reflecting on everything. However, one person’s sensitive question is another person’s less than sensitive one. Therefore point 1 is: what is a sensitive question? For point 2, I go back to the statistical response that we received when we asked people what their reasons were for not taking part in the census. I do not want to repeat myself at length, but I note that concerns about certain types of questions being a main contributory factor in people taking part or not came in at less than 5 per cent. Does that mean that one should not think about that? No—of course one should. Frankly, we need to think about everything.

Because of the very nature of what a census is supposed to provide—so that we can understand society in the 21st century—we ask a wide range of questions to understand the kind of country that we are in. I will leave it to the statisticians to go through them. The census is a million miles away from where it was 20 or 100 years ago, because we require much more information if we are, among other things, to provide the public services that we wish to provide in a way that reflects our society. That is why we have to ask the broadest range of questions.

To return to the central question of whether we should be prepared to think about all kinds of questions, my answer is that we absolutely should.

Donald Cameron

Finally, I will ask a question about a letter that has been supplied to the committee. It is from Mark Pont, who is assessment programme lead with the Office for Statistics Regulation, and it is addressed to Mr Whitehouse, so he might want to respond. Mr Pont makes a point about transparency, saying that he considers that

“it would be in NRS’s interests to be more transparent now about the steps that it is taking to generate good quality census estimates. We consider that being transparent about the various current activities, plans, processes etc would assure users of NRS’s trustworthiness and reassure users that they can confidently expect high quality estimates from the ... census.”

Do you accept that?

Peter Whitehouse

Yes, we accept that being transparent is fundamental to what we are trying to do. The earlier part of that letter welcomed the fact that we have been transparent. We work closely with the Office for Statistics Regulation, take its advice and accept its support. As you said, Mark Pont has written to me to say that this would be a good time to do a little bit more on the evolution of our methodology.

To that end, we have published a paper on our website, which very much aligns with the evidence of the professors from whom the committee heard a couple of weeks ago. It is about how we are building in an administrative data solution with more statistical and estimation methodology and how we are learning from our colleagues not just in the UK but around the world, which is important.

If I may, I will come back on a couple of other points. We will publish a review of the census for the Parliament; that is planned and will happen in 2024. We are carrying out reviews of each element of those programmes, and all that work will feed into the report about where we are.

In their contributions a couple of weeks ago, Professor David Martin and Professor Sir Ian Diamond spoke about variation being a factor that is there across all censuses. Professor Martin talked about areas of England—perhaps affluent ones—which people were considered to have left to go and live in a second home or somewhere out of the city, and the concerns about what that means.

We have a conference coming up with our colleagues across the globe—the international census forum—which brings in America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and ourselves in the four nations of the UK. We come together to learn from one another, because we face the same issues. As the cabinet secretary has said, those include how we get people to respond—whether in 2021, 2022, 2031 or whenever it might be—to questions in a way that, increasingly, they do not wish to do. That is where we get the stats, the methodologies and the admin data.

My final point is a factual one. A couple of weeks ago, it was mentioned that Glasgow’s response rate was 81 per cent, but its rate was actually just under 85 per cent. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it was 83 point something per cent.

Thank you for that correction.

Mark Ruskell

I wonder whether, at this stage, there are particular lessons to be learned about the hard-to-count groups. Those include more transient populations such as students, those with English as a second language and those living in particular types of housing. Reflecting on what you said earlier about marketing—there was a lot of marketing out there—can you tell us whether that marketing was targeted at those groups? What lessons can be learned about how it could be improved in future?

Angus Robertson

The answer is yes, it was. Is there still more that can be done? Absolutely. There has to be a full toolkit of ways in which one can reach different parts of society—that is a reflection of the fact that we are living in an ever more atomised society.

I am pleased about the different ways in which support was offered. Support was there for people who had English as a second language, some of whom needed translation. It was there for people whose eyesight was not good, so that they could complete the census over the phone, with somebody helping them through it. People who prefer to do things in written form rather than online could have a written census form, and they were given one when it was suggested on doorstep visits that they preferred doing things on paper.

It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that there was an extremely high digital return rate for the census. This was the first time that digital completion was prioritised in the way that it was. Our society is in flux in that younger people are absolutely at home when using digital access to services—the fact that nine out of 10 census forms were returned digitally shows that people are content to do that—but this time we also had to recognise that there are still people for whom that is not their preferred way to take part in the census. That is why there was an additional range of ways in which people were able to take part.

As far as students and other groups are concerned, I would be interested to know, as part of the on-going process, how effective internal communications were in, say, the university or college landscape or in certain faith communities in which there might be a higher percentage of people who come from linguistic minority groups. There will definitely be lessons that we can learn from that about what worked well and what we need to do more on.

I do not know whether my NRS colleagues have anything to add on any early impressions that we have from all that.

Peter Whitehouse

My immediate reaction is that all the logical processes that could be put in place—such as working with groups that can go into communities on behalf of the census to talk about its benefits, the importance of being part of it, the safety of the process, the security of the data and the purpose of it—happened. Whether we can do more of those activities is a question to be answered.

As you would expect, I do not think that we left any stone unturned in our engagement activities. We did all the work that we could on understanding how to get to people, to help them, to support them with translation and to give them the opportunity to phone a help centre and complete their response online. We talked very heavily about the benefits of the census for our nation, our society and our communities, all the way down to individual neighbourhoods. We really emphasised all that but, in certain areas, it obviously has not resonated as well as we would have hoped.

From a statistical perspective, the question is how we maximise engagement to get the vast amount of data that we want and that we know what to do if we continue to have those challenges in the future, as is happening across the globe. Professor Sir Ian Diamond spoke about the third pillar. We need to know how to make that an equal part of our national and societal understanding of what a modern census is.

Mark Ruskell

The world is changing. Earlier, you showed us the impressive stack of written communication. When I was out canvassing earlier in the year, I saw a lot of that communication—reminders and leaflets—drifting around stairwells next to pizza delivery menus, unfortunately.

And election literature.

Mark Ruskell

My election literature was put through the door.

I am interested to know about the social media tools. Was there a campaign on YouTube, TikTok or Instagram? What was the effectiveness of that? Were there different types of messages? On terrestrial television, I saw a lot of community-minded messages about planning for education in schools. That appeals to me, but there might be different messages for different groups, particularly people who are not permanent residents in communities and might move on after a year or two.

Angus Robertson

If it is helpful to the committee, I am happy to provide the background of the different types of messaging that we use across different platforms, from television through to social media. It was full-spectrum communication and was aimed at different target audiences. I do not have to tell Mr Ruskell that the audience that uses TikTok is quite different from the one that uses Facebook, which is quite different from one that watches certain television channels, which is different from other types of audience.

It is a reflection of the times in which we live that one has to communicate across all those platforms and more. No doubt the conclusion will be that we will have to do more of that the next time the census comes round. However, Paul Lowe made the important point that the lessons that we are learning from the process are not unique to the census. They are reflective of a societal trend and a challenge for anybody who wants to collect information about the public to help to provide the best public services, in the case of the census, to understand the labour market or to understand any number of other things about society at different stages.

How can we do that in a way that is genuinely reflective of the whole of society? Sarah Boyack has spoken about that before and she is right to highlight the point. There are variable rates of return. In shorthand, the more affluent an area, the higher the turnout; the lower the income demographics, the lower the rate of return. I am very much simplifying, but that is one of the most significant factors. Because of that variable rate, we must have mechanisms in place to ensure that the conclusions of the census or other statistical products are genuinely reflective.

The survey work that takes place after the census is really important. I have no reason to disbelieve that the committee understands that. I think that I am right in saying that that work—I am looking at my NRS colleagues before I overclaim—is the biggest survey in Scotland after the census. We are talking about a return of the best part of 30,000—off the top of my head, I think that it is between 25,000 and 30,000—and, as committee members know, it is normally about 1,000 for a representative statistical survey. Therefore, we are talking about an exercise that is 25 to 30 times the size of that.


Significant efforts are being undertaken to make sure that targeted information is obtained. I am sorry; I should have stressed the point that it is targeted within those harder-to-reach parts of the return from the census, to make sure that the overall picture provides not only the statistical certainty of population numbers, as we are confident it does, but that level of granular detail about people of different backgrounds in different communities, so that the provision of important public services, such as health and education, is done on the basis of reflective and high-quality data. I and my NRS colleagues are confident that that has been achieved in the 2022 census.

Alasdair Allan

You alluded to this issue, which we brought up in previous sessions: in reaching the decision to delay, did you consider how historically abnormal it would have been for a census to take place during a pandemic? It is difficult to think of a more abnormal circumstance, other than a war.

Dr Allan used the word “you”. I was not part of the decision, so it is difficult for me to think my way into—


Angus Robertson

“Youse”, to use the Scots form, which Dr Allan is very well qualified to deploy.

I turn to my NRS colleagues, who were part of that decision-making process. Paul Lowe has put his real hand up, as well as his virtual hand, to answer that. It is not for me to second-guess. To me, just reading through things, the rationale is exactly the same as that which led to at least 60 per cent of other countries that were in the same circumstance to come to the same conclusion. I leave it to Paul Lowe to take us through things, as he was there and was part of the process.

Paul Lowe

A number of factors informed our decision making, Dr Allan. The point that you raised—we talked about it a bit in June, I believe—was a relevant factor. The census is about taking a snapshot in time, but it is also about taking a representative snapshot in time, which can be used in subsequent years.

We have used 2011 census data some years later, for example in some of our analyses around Covid and its impact on people from different populations and ethnicities. That ability to use it in a range of ways—some of which were not anticipated—is really important.

As I think that Professor Sir Ian Diamond said to the committee a couple of weeks ago, there was no algorithm for making a decision about whether to go in 2021 or later, but 71 per cent of countries went later because of Covid, and a significant proportion of those that ran a census made changes to it, including ONS and NISRA colleagues.

One of the challenges is in the fact that the census gathers lots of important information about a range of things, such as where students study and where people work, how they get there and where they live. The pandemic introduced some short-term but significant shifts in society. People were not necessarily commuting to work. Students were at home, not at their place of study. In effect, a range of data is skewed by the circumstances of a pandemic. The challenge that the organisations that took censuses during the pandemic are having to face—and have faced—is about how to make adjustments to that census data in order to take into account the fact that society was not in the right place.

For example, you will have been aware that local authorities in London boroughs expressed concern about undercounts of population in the census, because it was taken during a pandemic and a lot of people did not end up staying in their usual places in London.

There was no right or wrong answer. There was an approach, and things had to be managed as a consequence. Picking up on Donald Cameron’s earlier point on finance, the ONS was mindful that delaying its census for a year would have cost it £365 million, which was nearly 39 per cent of its programme budget of nearly £1 billion.

We were able to delay at an additional cost—I appreciate that—and gathering that data took 18 per cent and £21.6 million of our budget. The data that we gathered in Scotland in March 2022 is probably reflective of what Scottish society will look like over the next few years. I hope that that helps.

Jenni Minto

I was struck when you talked about the ways that you could get information about the census out to people. I studied statistics for one year at secondary school, but I have to admit that it was not my favourite subject. Last night, Sarah Boyack and I attended the cross-party group on culture and communities and saw an exceptionally interesting presentation by the leader of the University of Dundee’s archive about how it has opened out its archive to schoolchildren and people of different ages to share stories about the past. I do not have the exact quote, but in 2005 Nelson Mandela said that archives are also about making the future.

Following on from Mr Cameron’s questions, I am interested to hear about how you could emphasise to people such as me, for whom statistics is not their favourite subject, the importance of the census and the lessons that we can learn from it. We heard about the example of a woman who suffered from mental health issues and went back to the archives of one of the hospitals in Dundee. They have learned from that. They have done a play and taken it out to communities, and she has been on various different media. I wonder whether stories such as that might help to tell the positive story of the census, and as a result get better results through one of the three pillars.

Angus Robertson

First, convener, if you do not mind me correcting the record, in my previous answer I talked about 60-plus per cent of countries delaying their censuses. It was 59 countries but 71 per cent.

On Jenni Minto’s point about storytelling and the sense of communicating more effectively, that undoubtedly has to be part of the solution. In effect, that is what was happening. I do not know whether all committee members saw the television adverts that involved imaginative ways of communicating the connection between taking part in the census and the provision of a local hospital or other form of public service. Those efforts were undertaken to try and help explain why the census is not an abstract exercise but something that really matters to us all. Could we do that better? Undoubtedly. In 10 years’ time, who knows what Scotland will be like, although I have some hopes about what it will be like. I see Donald Cameron smiling in agreement—good, we are making progress. I am sorry; I am being a bit cheeky.

The trends that we are trying to understand will continue. The nature of society is changing and we will have to be imaginative about reaching out in different ways to different people in different places; we cannot expect to have the same impact or rate of return on things otherwise.

I am sure that colleagues here would agree that it was important to hear that our NRS colleagues are part of international networks and that they work with colleagues in comparable countries, and further away as well, to learn what others are doing. I do not think that there is a silver bullet in any of that, and I do not think that something that would have made significant statistical difference was missed.

The lengthening of the collection period was really important in reaching those places where, notwithstanding the extensive communication work that took place, there clearly needed to be more, different and direct communication. We will have to calibrate that in the best possible way for the next census.

There is something in Jenni Minto’s point about schools. I was talking to officials about that before the evidence session. It is good that efforts were undertaken in the run up to the census. When we think about kids going to school, understanding what the census is and why it is important and then being able to ask their parents about the census at home—asking, “When are we doing it?”, and all of that—we can see that it could be an important part of the equation. Education is part of it, and we need an imaginative response. It is being done already, as are all these other things, but on whether these things can be reviewed and better understood and their effectiveness assured, the answer is yes. It is going to be a case of constant improvement, but that is what colleagues at NRS do already. It is all about doing a job, learning the lessons, reviewing it, implementing the changes that need to happen, and publishing what they are doing. I am all for it when I hear people say that they want transparency. Well, please go to the NRS website and have a look at what is there and at the documentation that has been provided—it is extensive.

I have not said this yet, but I want to put on record my appreciation of the hard work that went into Scotland’s census 2022 by NRS and, by extension, everybody else who took part in the process, from the enumerators to the people in the call centre and so on. An extraordinary effort went into ensuring that we could get to this stage of having high-quality data, which some people cast doubt on—including people in the parliamentary chamber, let us not forget. It is just factually incorrect to suggest that Scotland’s census 2022 will not provide high-quality data. It is providing that and it will provide that, and it has delivered. It is having to deliver in a different way from previous censuses, and I think that that trend will continue. All lessons that need to be learned must be learned, and I have no doubt that we will come back to the committee to report on what those are.

My colleagues here are extremely intellectually curious. They want to know what has to change and how to do it. Countries elsewhere in the world are looking to Scotland to better understand this phenomenon, because they realise that they are dealing with the same phenomenon or similar phenomena. You cannot get much further away in the world, geographically, than New Zealand, and people there, too, are speaking with colleagues here about our experience to ensure that they maximise their return rate. They have settled on a number that is remarkably similar to the return rate that we secured here in Scotland.

The Convener

That exhausts the committee’s questions this morning, cabinet secretary. I thank you and your officials for attending.

We move into private session for the next agenda items.

11:13 Meeting continued in private until 11:18.