Credibility of Scottish census damaged by poor participation rates
Every Scottish municipal area failed to meet the target in the once-in-a-decade national census, prompting fears by the government opposition that poorer areas might lose out on services and damaging the devolved administration’s record for competence just as it pushes for independence.
After a process that was delayed a year by Covid-19 and then extended by a month to the end of May, not one of the 32 municipal areas managed to match the average 94 per cent achieved in 2011. Equalling that was identified as a metric of success.
England and Wales, which conducted their survey in March 2021, achieved a 97 per cent participation rate and the first data were published on Tuesday. In contrast, the initial outcomes from the Scottish count will be published in early 2023.
The highest rate of returns in Scotland was in Na h-Eileanan Siar on the Isle of Lewis, with 93.9 per cent participation, while Glasgow was at the bottom of the table with 83.2 per cent. The national average dropped to 89 per cent, compared to 94 per cent in 2011, when Scotland’s survey was run at the same time as the rest of the UK.
Scotland’s delay may have been one of the factors behind its lower participation rate as it lost out on the momentum elsewhere. Research for National Records Scotland, which conducts the census, late in May showed that nearly a quarter of people under 40 were not aware it was going on.
Accurate census data is important because policymakers use it to decide how to allocate spending on services. The outcome is also a setback for the SNP government, which wants to take Scotland out of the UK and argues that separation would deliver a fairer and more equitable society.
Critics say the areas most in need are those most likely to lose out because their participation rates were lowest.
“It’s been a catastrophe,” said Donald Cameron, Conservative spokesperson on constitutional affairs. “It will make it hard for the census to be used properly. When planning for public services, you need this information.”
Sarah Boyack, the Labour party’s spokesperson on constitutional matters, said the SNP government had failed to anticipate that a “digital by default” approach risked missing people who lacked access to internet coverage and devices such as personal computers and tablets.
She said that on a site visit with census staff to a building in a low-income area of Edinburgh the turnout was about 57 per cent. Instead of learning from best practice elsewhere, she said the devolved government chose to go for “Scottish exceptionalism”. She said officials should be held to account.
Angus Robertson, the government secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture, declined to comment.
Philip Whyte, Scotland director for the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think-tank, said it was not until the extension periods that the government made a push to have staff on the ground visiting people’s homes. That “should have been baked into the process from the very start,” he said. “We need to ensure there’s no negative impact for people in those communities . . . That would really be a double whammy.”
National Records Scotland said the census was never exclusively digital, although the overwhelming majority of people chose to respond online. The organisation issued more than 600,000 paper forms while its processing centre handled more than 750,000 calls, as well as more than 60,000 emails.
The one-month extension — which it said was common in similar exercises from the US to Poland — focused on the areas with the lowest rate of returns, and boosted the overall number by almost 10 percentage points.
“We are confident we can deliver high-quality census outputs based on the census returns, coverage survey, administrative data and statistical methods,” the agency said.
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