Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
160. That is a very helpful summary. Were these
shortcomings that you have listed, these four main areas, unique
to this Census or is there any collective memory of whether they
occurred in the previous Census back in 1991?
(Ms Hadi) I may not be correct but I think there was
some progress in this Census in terms of actually providing information
in other formats and the Census questions in other formats. I
was not working in the field ten years ago but I do not remember
that facility. I think there was one step forward and perhaps
a few more steps that were not taken.
161. Can you help us as to whether blind or
partially sighted people were able to take part in the previous
Census or not?
(Ms Hadi) I am sure a lot of us did take part. I am
sure we asked friends, family, asked for help in completing the
form. In a way maybe that was more acceptable ten years ago whereas
culturally now I think a lot of us expect our need to operate
independently will be much more taken on board, particularly in
the light of things like the Disability Discrimination Act and
human rights legislation. To answer your question, probably culturally
our expectations were probably lower then as blind people but
also I do not think any special arrangements would have been made
ten years ago.
Chairman: Thank you. I am going to ask Nick
Palmer, who is on your right, to ask a few questions.
162. Good afternoon. I wanted to refer back
to evidence that we were given from the Office for National Statistics.
They said there had been extensive and prolonged consultations
with the RNIB about the availability of explanatory material in
Braille and audio tape form, but they said that subsequently you
considered the steps taken were not sufficient and you mounted
a campaign in the weeks immediately before the Census for the
Census form itself to be in Braille and for other improvements.
Would that be a fair description of the events?
(Ms Ellis) My understanding is that we were invited
initially to a consultation in about October 1999 to talk about
the form and we expressed some horror when we saw what was intended
to be the standard Census form because it was in small print,
the contrast was very bad, it would present difficulties for anyone
with sight problems. We were told that it was too late to change
that but ONS was willing to look at providing information about
the Census and also the questions in alternative formats. We also
raised issues around the need for perhaps a password scheme so
that when enumerators called on a blind person's door they had
some means of identifying the fact that was an enumerator and
not somebody who had come to rob their home. We subsequently started
getting calls from blind and partially sighted people specifically
about the issues of the Census and would they be able to participate
independently. There were a number of these calls so at that point
we decided we had to make serious representations to ONS to say
there was quite a strong feeling out there about this issue. We
put it to them that satisfying the need people felt to make independent
returns was not actually going to be that problematic, it could
be done within the existing systems without too much fuss. We
were told then it would be administratively too difficult and
it might have cost implications. We kept on about that and we
kept on getting more and more calls from blind and partially sighted
people and it was very clear to us there was a great strength
of feeling out there. This was months, if not a year, beforehand.
Then it got to such a point that we had a protest basically in
2001 before the Census, when the Census help line opened. Our
concern was to basically give people a means of expressing their
frustration and making the point so that it was actually taken
on board with a view to getting the arrangements completely right
163. So, as I understand it, the initial discussions
in September or October 1999 focused on the explanatory material
after they had said that the form itself could not be changed
at that point but subsequently the level of protest was such that
you felt the need to campaign more on the subject of the form
itself. Would that be a fair summary?
(Ms Ellis) Getting even the accompanying information
right and the questions and organising that and advising them
on how you should present it in a large print, that involves a
lot of time and discussion so even that itself was a big task.
Ideally, that whole process would have started years in advance.
Luckily now we are in the position where ONS realise the discussions
have to start now about what happens in ten years' time and that
is absolutely right because now we are in a position to be able
to influence the design standard Census form which we were not
164. Do you think with the benefit of hindsight
that it would have been better if the RNIB had taken the initiative
to take these concerns to the ONS before the design of the form
was finalised? I realise they only consulted you at that point
but perhaps you should have taken it up yourselves.
(Ms Ellis) We always have a number of issues that
we are campaigning on. One recent one was to do with the civil
right and obligation of voting and we were very consumed with
enabling people to be able to vote independently, and we work
in a number of different areas. The problem of social exclusion
crosses all different issue boundaries and we ought to be able
to expect the Government at least to consider whether a particular
issue will have an impact on particular groups of disabled people.
(Ms Hadi) We have something called See It Right
guidelines which are around good practice and alternative format
production. They have been around since 1993. They are broadly
endorsed by the Government. We are a charity and I do not think
it is our duty to search out every government body or even private
sector body and tell them what best practice is.
Dr Palmer: Thank you.
165. The National Statistician, when he was
before us, told us that he thought the criticisms that you had
made of the Census as an organisation were "extreme".
Why do you think he says that?
(Ms Ellis) They were taken aback, as I think they
would admit, by the strength of feeling. All we were doing was
basically channelling that and expressing that, so our tone simply
reflects the tone of communications that we have had from blind
and partially sighted people. Since the DDA came into effect,
which means that service providers should be providing information
in accessible formats, has empowered people in a way to demand
more accessible information and the sense that they are entitled
to information in that format is growing, and rightly so. Our
tone reflects the tone of the communications that blind and partially
sighted people have been having with us. It reflects their views.
166. So your interpretation of his use of the
word "extreme" was in relation to the tone of your criticism
and not the content of your criticism?
(Ms Ellis) It is a fundamental human rights' issue
whether you are entitled to in private and confidentially fill
in the Census form. Sighted people in a household were given that
right and visually impaired people were not given that right.
That is an issue that you would feel very strongly about and hence
the strength of feeling took them aback. That is why they may
have regarded it as extreme. In fact, it is just that it is a
potentially severe infringement of human rights.
167. How do you feel your relations with the
ONS are at the moment now that the Census is over?
(Ms Hadi) I personally think that even when there
were tensions publicly, between us privately we were always talking
and we continue to talk. Recently our Director-General has met
with Len Cook and we are looking forward to building on what we
have both learned. I hope there is no damage because we all make
mistakes and we can all learn from them.
168. You feel reasonably confident then that
the valid point that you are making will be taken on board and
will be reflected in the design and the operation of the next
(Ms Hadi) It would be nice to have the support of
committees like that in making sure that happened. Also I do not
know whether this is true or not, I never got to the bottom of
it but certainly when I met the Deputy Director of the Census
Office just before the Census took place, he said that he felt
that one of the reasons they could not accede to the request for
receiving survey forms in alternative formats was that he felt
the Regulations did not permit him to do that. If that is the
caseand I do not know enough about it to knowI would
ask that the Regulations do not curb the Census operators in that
169. That is a useful comment. Finally, have
you kept a tally of complaints? Do you have an estimate of how
many blind or partially sighted people were unable to complete
the Census and how many had to seek help to complete the Census?
(Ms Ellis) We do not have any statistics on that.
What I do have is a bulging file of case studies, people who wrote
in, sent e-mails, people who sent information and feedback and
we had some feedback from local societies of blind and partially
sighted people who often ended up being very closely involved
and coming to the rescue. When enumerators either in some cases
would not give people assistance to complete the form or felt
otherwise unable to it, it was often local societies that stepped
in and acted in a voluntary capacity to help their members with
form completion. I think people were almost determined to participate
and eager to participate. They realised that on the basis of their
information future services would be planned that will benefit
them, so everyone had a really strong desire to participate so,
no, we do not have any statistics, we have case studies.
170. Finally, Chairman, at this stage are you
able to say what would be your top priorities for changes in the
way the Census is either constructed or conducted next time round?
(Ms Hadi) I think we are. We set some of these out
in our paper but, as Caroline said earlier, a well designed mainstream
Census form that will help sighted people as well as people with
sight problems, improved training of enumerators and the issue
about the identity pass card so that people know who they are,
not just braille but alternative formats for information and questions,
but also a way of responding in an alternative format as well,
staff who are trained to answer queries and know what large print
is and do not just tell people that they should struggle with
the form because the print is big enough already. We have set
out some of these and we would be very happy to engage in more
detailed discussion with the Census operators to build in these
things early on so that we get it right next time.
171. That is very helpful. One quick supplementary,
if I may. If the Census in the future were to switch from a paper-based
operation to an electronic-based operation, would that help you
or throw up another set of problems?
(Ms Hadi) Some blind people are very technically literate.
A lot are not. A higher proportion of blind and partially sighted
people do not have access to the Internet and would find it harder.
If it were an option then some blind people would welcome it.
It does throw up other problems about accessibility in terms of
web accessibility. We would not want to see it as the solution,
but if it were part of a package of ways of responding, we would
172. The National Statistician told us that
we did this Census as well as anyone else he knew. Is there another
country that you are aware of that does this better for blind
or partially sighted people that you could direct us to?
(Ms Hadi) No but we could find out.
173. Will you do that?
(Ms Hadi) Yes.
Chairman: Thank you both very much indeed for
coming to see us this evening.