Select Committee on Treasury First Report

The preparations for the Census


16. Consultation on the 2001 Census started in 1995. Three working groups were set up to consider the content of the Census (questions to be asked), population definitions and output. These shaped proposals upon which more formal consultation was carried out with Census Advisory Groups, five in England and Wales (one for each customer sector - central government, local government, health sector, academics, and business sector) and one each in Scotland and Northern Ireland.[21]

17. Proposals for the Census process were tested extensively, with more than 40 small-scale question tests. There was also a major test in 1997 to evaluate new collection and processing methods including post back of the Census forms, as well as alternative styles of Census form, and to test public reaction to some and new revised questions. In 1999, there was a Census rehearsal to test the delivery and collection procedures (including post back), the public acceptability of the form, the follow-up coverage survey, and the systems for processing the data. The rehearsal covered nearly 150,000 households throughout the UK, in areas chosen to include a cross-section of population and housing types.[22]

18. In March 1999, the Treasury published a White Paper "The 2001 Census of Population" setting out the Government's proposals for the Census.[23] The primary legislation that provides for the taking of a Census in Great Britain is the Census Act 1920.[24] Under the current terms of this Act, an Order in Council is made, following approval of a draft by both Houses of Parliament which may prescribe the date on which the Census is to be taken; the persons by whom and with respect to whom the Census returns are to be made; and the particulars to be stated on the returns. The Schedule to the

Census Act 1920 sets out the specific matters in respect of which particulars may be required in Censuses in Great Britain:

  • names, sex, age
  • occupation, profession, trade or employment
  • nationality, birthplace, race, language
  • place of abode and character of dwelling
  • condition as to marriage, relation to head of family, issue born in marriage
  • any other matters with respect to which it is desirable to obtain statistical information with a view to ascertaining the social or civil condition of the population [25]

Regulations made under Section 3 of the Census Act, which prescribed the detailed arrangements for the conduct of the Census and included specimens of the forms to be used, were laid before Parliament in June 2000.[26]

1. The Census Act 1920 is unusual in providing for draft Orders in Council to be amendable by either House of Parliament prior to their approval by the two Houses in respect of the additional information to be sought relating to the social or civil condition of the population. This enables Parliament to have a direct input into the content of the Census and in respect of the 1981 Census it was exercised.[27] We believe the legislative procedure for the Census provides a valuable opportunity for Parliament to make a more measured input to proposed legislation than when, as is usually the case, the enabling legislation permits only approval or rejection of proposed subordinate legislation.


2. For the first time in England and Wales, the 2001 Census included a question on religion. The proposal to include a question on religion in the 2001 Census in England and Wales was brought forward after the Census Order 2000 had been approved. Its inclusion required a change in the primary legislation applicable in that jurisdiction since the scope of the Schedule to the Census Act 1920 was considered insufficient to permit the inclusion of such a question. The Census (Amendment) Act 2000, which received Royal Assent in July 2000, extended the scope of the Schedule to include religion.[28] A further Order in Council was made, following which revised Census forms for England and Wales, containing a question on religion, were prescribed in the Census (Amendment) Regulations 2000.[29]

3. Under the Census Act 1920, completion of the Census form is compulsory and persons refusing to complete the form, or giving false information, are liable to a fine. However, the Census (Amendment) Act 2000 provided that this compulsion would not apply to failure to state any particulars in respect of religion.[30] We asked ONS whether the fact that the question on religion was voluntary had had an impact on the response rate. They told us that preliminary results, based on analysis of returns from 1.44 million people, indicated that the response rate would be between 92 per cent and 93 per cent. This compared with an expected response rate of between 95 per cent and 99 per cent for most questions on the form. Mr Cook also told us that they had no reason to believe that people would answer the question on religion less well than they would answer any other question.[31]


4. The topics on the Census form are "those that have been shown to be most needed by central and local government, the health service, academics, businesses and professional organisations. In each case, no other comparable and accessible source of the information is available in combination with other items in the Census. Consideration was given to the public acceptability of topics and to whether or not questions could be asked in a way that would elicit reliable answers."[32] ONS told us that there had been a "huge demand" for a question on income.[33] This was supported by the evidence we received from the Demographics User Group who stated that " ...our only serious regret was that, despite the wishes of all the major user groups, the ONS appeared to have decided at the outset not to ask a question on income."[34] ONS told us that their testing had led them to the conclusion that "for a significant minority of the population it would not [have been] ... acceptable to have that question on a census form that was compulsory" and they had concluded they could not put it on the form.[35] ONS did not say whether they had considered a voluntary question.

5. It is clear that a question on income would have been found useful by many users of Census data. The ONS decision not to include such a question appears to be based, at least in part, on judgements on the public's willingness to provide such information in the context of a Census. The information on the response rate to the question on religion suggests that compulsion is not necessarily an essential element in securing a high level of responses to specific questions. We therefore recommend that, in the light of the response rate for the question on religion, ONS should consult further on whether a question on income should be included in any future Census, and whether it should be voluntary or compulsory.


6. From July 2000 onwards, a campaign was mounted in Wales calling for a Welsh tick box within the ethnicity question. The 1999 Census Rehearsal had included parts of Wales to test not just the questions, but also the procedures and particularly the Welsh and English language issues. Following consultation, ONS had included various measures designed to ensure that there was a "Welsh Census" in Wales. Among these were the delivery to every household of forms in both Welsh and English, an improved question about the Welsh language, a country-of-birth question with a "Wales" tick box option, and a dedicated advertising campaign in Wales.[36]

7. ONS informed us that by the time the Welsh tick box issue was first raised, the content of the Census forms had been approved by Parliament and the logistical exercise of printing Census forms had already begun. However, the Registrar General "sought to respond positively and introduced a package of measures to improve information about Welsh identity and promote the option of for those in Wales who wished to record themselves as Welsh to use the 'write in' option available on the form ..."[37]

8. ONS told us that in the event the tick box campaign does not appear to have had any significant impact on the response rate, or on the quality of the responses in Wales. Throughout the enumeration, Wales provided some of the best-responding areas.[38] However, in the light of the strength of feeling expressed in Wales on the matter of recording Welsh identity in the Census, the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, agreed that "the National Assembly for Wales should have a more formal role in agreeing future Census forms in Wales ... and ... officials are currently discussing how this might best be achieved."[39] The National Statistician plans to issue a statement when an agreement has been reached with the National Assembly for Wales on the planning, and content of, future Census forms in Wales.[40]

9. We note that ONS's preparations for the 2001 Census did not reveal the latent concerns in Wales over how Welsh identity was to be recorded on the Census form. We recommend, in the light of this, that ONS look further at the way in which they rehearse any future Census, to ensure the most accurate picture possible is obtained of both how the census is likely to be received and proceed. We endorse the proposal that the National Assembly for Wales have a more formal role in agreeing future Census forms for Wales.

Blind and partially-sighted people

10. Concern was expressed to us about difficulties experienced by blind and partially-sighted people in relation to the 2001 Census. The Royal National Institute for the Blind [RNIB] told us that they and blind and partially-sighted people had been consulted far too late in the process to ensure that their needs would be catered for and that they would be included in the Census process in an equal way. There had been a number of confusing and conflicting messages from ONS on the arrangements they were prepared to make for blind and partially-sighted people. While ONS had done some things, for example, producing some information in alternative formats, they had not thought through the whole process and had not made any arrangements for people who wanted to respond in these alternative formats. In addition, staff on the telephone helpline had not been as trained as they could have been and "... when blind people rang up frustrated, anxious, worried about being fined they did not always provide the most helpful, constructive responses."[41]

11. The RNIB considered that if ONS had carried out earlier and more meaningful consultation it might have been aware how strongly people with sight problems felt about being able to complete their form independently and confidentially just like sighted people.[42] The RNIB told us that they were seeking a commitment from the Treasury and ONS that the next Census would be planned and conducted in such a way "as to fully conform with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Human Rights Act 1998 and indeed go beyond basic standards of accessibility and embrace a best practice approach to meeting the needs of all disabled people."[43] In this context, the RNIB set out in their evidence a number of detailed recommendations and specific design criteria for the next Census.[44]

12. In their written evidence, ONS commented that there "had been extensive and prolonged consultation with the RNIB about the availability of explanatory material in Braille and audio-tape form. ... Subsequently, however, RNIB did not consider that the steps taken were sufficient and mounted a campaign in the weeks immediately before the Census for a Braille Census form and other ways for responses to be provided independently by blind and partially-sighted people. ONS sought to respond ... by arranging for blind and partially-sighted people to complete forms by e-mail and on the telephone."[45] Mr Cook told us that " ... where we felt really quite surprised and disappointed was the assertion by that group [the RNIB] that we had actually done nothing in the intervening ten years since the last Census when in fact we had ... every question in Braille and instructions in Braille and a whole lot of other things which were done: videos, large-sized print, forms. We did not receive answers in Braille but we actually provided questions. ..."[46] ONS recognised that more should be done for the next Census and told us that they would start planning for this before the next questionnaire is developed. They would like to move to a way of receiving answers in Braille, but had more work to do on this which would be guided by what other countries do.[47]

13. We welcome ONS's recognition that more needs to be done for blind and partially-sighted people for the next Census. We believe that this should mean that blind and partially-sighted people are able to take part in any future Census independently. More generally, we recommend that ONS review carefully, in consultation with relevant organisations, problems experienced by disabled people in relation to the conduct of the 2001 Census and adopt a best practice approach to meeting the needs of all disabled people.

21   Ev 5, para 41 Back

22   Ev 5, paras 43, 44 Back

23   The 2001 Census of Population, Cm 4253  Back

24   The equivalent Northern Ireland legislation is the Census Act (Northern Ireland) 1969  Back

25   Ev 4, paras 33, 34 Back

26   Census Regulations 2000 (SI 2000, No. 1473) Back

27   CJ (1979-80), Vol. 236, pp 540-1. Amendments were also tabled to the draft Census Order 1989, which set out the specific matters to be included in the 1991 Census. For procedural reasons, these could not be considered by the House. See the Order Paper for 8 January 1990, pp 952-3 and CJ (1989-90), Vol. 246, p 91 Back

28   Ev 4, Ev 11, para 39 Annex C Back

29   SI, 2000, No. 3351 Back

30   The Census 2001England Household Form, p 1 Back

31   Qq25-27, Ev 54  Back

32   Ev 2, para 14 Back

33   Q21 Back

34   Ev 48, section 1 Back

35   Q21 Back

36   Q29, Ev 7, paras 62, 63 Back

37   Ev 7, paras 64, 65 Back

38   Ev 7, para 66 Back

39   Ev 7, para 67 Back

40   HC Deb, 7 February 2002, c. 1147W. Back

41   Q159 Back

42   Ev 32, para 2.1 Back

43   Ev 34, para 5.3 Back

44   Qq162, 170, Ev 34, Ev 35, paras 5.7-5.13 Back

45   Ev 8, para 72 Back

46   Q58 Back

47   Q59, Ev 8, para 72 Back

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