Select Committee on Treasury First Report

Conduct of the Census


14. The Census has been described as the UK's biggest peacetime exercise which requires the goodwill of the public. It was a huge logistical operation which involved a field staff in England and Wales of some 69,000 and a target audience of every household in the country. Each enumerator was responsible for the delivery of a Census form to each household in their district and they were trained to make contact with as many households as possible as this helps people understand the purpose of the Census (and thus enhance response rates) and to note new addresses that might not have been on their records. Communal establishments such as hospitals, prisons and residences for the elderly were treated differently and each person was required to complete an individual form. There were no exceptions and special arrangements were made, for example, to enumerate the Armed Forces.[48]

15. Approximately 30 million Census forms were delivered by enumerators or by posting them out to those households who had inadvertently been missed. Once completed in respect of 29 April 2001, the forms were returned via the Royal Mail to the 2,000 Census District Managers who were required to log returns and arrange for personal visits to those who had not completed their Census form or who were having difficulty in so doing. The returned forms were collected from each of the Census District Managers and transported to a central processing centre in Widnes where they will be processed using scanning, recognition and auto coding technology.[49]

16. The Census was followed by a Census Coverage Survey designed to measure how the Census performed in counting households and people by interviewing a cross section of the population and carefully matching the results from both the survey and the Census. In England and Wales the survey covered approximately 300,000 households in 20,000 postcodes selected to form a representative sample. This approach is designed to provide a basis to estimate missing items of data, and to allow for missing people. ONS told us that, by using the Census and the Census Coverage Survey in combination, it will be possible to provide a full and complete count of the population by August 2002.[50]

Return of the Census forms

17. The 2001 Census was the first time the public have been asked to return Census forms by post. ONS told us that they had not been able to secure a guarantee of performance from the Post Office because the Post Office had been unwilling to enter into a contract. In practice, Census forms had been received from the Post Office "in aggregate in a reasonably effective manner", however, the variability of performance around the country was far greater than ONS had anticipated. This created "huge problems locally" and in some areas enumerators went back to households when the forms had already been returned. Mr Cook told us that "the Post Office problems were the largest difficulties that we faced in the conduct of the Census".[51]

18. In view of the difficulties experienced with the return of Census forms, we recommend that for any future Census ONS evaluate the benefits of postal return versus enumerator or other means of returning forms. If a future Census is to be based on postal return, ONS should conclude a service level agreement with the service provider aimed at ensuring that the conduct of the Census is not impeded by the quality of service received.

The Census Helpline

19. A telephone helpline was provided to resolve any queries people had regarding the Census or their Census form. The Census helpline was contracted out to Cable and Wireless. Neither ONS nor Cable and Wireless had envisaged the volume of calls that were received, and the service was initially overwhelmed. ONS told us that "many callers were frustrated at the length of time they were kept waiting, their inability to get through to an operator and the number of times they had to call before getting satisfaction."[52] The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux noted that "the helpline failed to cope with the number of calls and was unable to provide information easily and quickly, particularly to people with language difficulties or disabilities - precisely the people who would be most likely to want assistance ... Most Citizens Advice Bureaux which saw clients regarding problems with the Census, encountered problems with the helpline. The cost of phone calls even at local rate was found to be a concern to clients as they could be left waiting a long time. Most bureaux themselves were unable to establish contact and were caught in the system of hanging on and then being advised to call back later ..."[53] They were also concerned that there was no ability to go back in the system if the caller pressed the wrong digit and about the reliance on touch tone phone technology.[54]

20. Over the three-month period that the Census helpline was operational (1 April to 30 June 2001) some 2.6 million calls were received. Calls peaked in the week beginning 23 April when over 1.1 million were received. Mr Cook told us that the helpline had been completely swamped on 23 April when they had been able to answer only 53 per cent of the calls received. The next day, ONS took action with Cable and Wireless to increase both the number of people dealing with calls and the number of phone lines within the next three days from 370 to 1,300. By 26 April the response rate to calls was 99 per cent.[55]

21. We asked ONS for an analysis of the calls received on the Census helpline. Just under 2.2 million of the calls received were answered by an automatic response. Automatic responses were designed "to deal with the most common calls - requests for information such as factsheets and answers to frequently asked questions such as 'What is the Census about?' and 'Is it confidential?'. Additional automatic responses were added, as the Census progressed, to answer specific queries such as 'How do I complete the form for my second home?'. The remaining 470,000 calls were answered by trained advisers"[56] A breakdown of these calls is shown in the table below:

Figure 1: Analysis of calls to the Census helpline answered by advisers

Reason for call

Number of calls

Request for information


Assistance required from field staff (including help to complete the form and the provision of translation or other facilities).


Queries relating to specific Census questions.

- a third covered general issues such as confidentiality of the information provided.

- queries relating to specific questions ranged from 3.1 per cent for the question on whether or not you were working last week to 0.4 per cent for the question on what is your sex.


Complaints which included: concerns about field staff and field operations (including problems in foot and mouth areas); the effectiveness of the Census helpline (including failing to send out forms properly); the lack of a 'Welsh' or 'English' tick box; the availability of facilities for blind and partially-sighted people; and non-compliance issues.


Other queries




source: ONS (Ev 54 and 55)

22. ONS seriously underestimated the volume of calls to the Census helpline and the service was initially overwhelmed. As a result, the service provided to the public, particularly in the week preceding Census Day, was inadequate and unsatisfactory. We note the significant number of calls for help received by ONS, but also recognise the context that, at some 2.6 million over three months, the number of calls received was under 10 per cent of those being enumerated. We recommend that helpline capacity for future censuses be carefully evaluated, and that there are discussions with service providers to seek to minimise technical constraints on call volumes and handling peak loads as these factors clearly contributed to the difficulties faced by some callers.

23. We consider that the number of calls received on the helpline suggests a need to make the Census process as simple as possible and for improvements in the way the public are informed of the Census and how to complete the form. We recommend that ONS review their communications campaign and the nature and volume of the calls received on the helpline to determine what can be done to reduce the level of help sought by the public in future.

The foot and mouth epidemic

24. The foot and mouth epidemic proved an unexpected complication in conducting both the Census and the coverage survey. ONS told us that special arrangements were invoked following discussions with the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Welsh authorities, as well as the farming unions. Intelligence was exchanged regularly with the National Farmers Union (NFU) which enabled up-to-date information to be supplied to the field staff, the Census helpline, and the National Statistics website. In affected areas, Census forms were delivered by mail, and, to make this possible, 20 different items were printed and distributed at short notice.[57] Enumerators in rural areas were given special training and Census staff were ordered to comply with all signs forbidding or restricting access, not to stray from paths or metalled roads, to comply with disinfecting arrangements, and if in doubt, to post out forms. ONS noted that "in the event, the Census passed off without serious incident, and evidence to date suggests data quality will not suffer in the countryside."[58]

25. The NFU told us that they were grateful for the understanding which ONS had shown of the considerable difficulties and stress facing farmers in the affected areas, and for the recognition of the need to make special arrangements to reduce the risk of the disease being spread by enumerators. The NFU welcomed having been put in touch with the Census's local field managers so that local problems could be addressed and told us that "due no doubt in large part to these arrangements and co-operation, we are not aware of any evidence that Census-taking activities led directly to any further spread of the disease."[59] However, the NFU also said that they had received reports that in many cases enumerators did not seem to be well informed of the need to apply precautions in taking Census details from the farming community. There had been "a few cases reported of enumerators running the risk of spreading the disease by their actions, for example by moving from one farm to another, though it is clear that this was inadvertent."[60]

26. We note that the available evidence suggests that the quality of the Census data collected in the countryside has not suffered as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic. We congratulate ONS on reacting sensibly and pragmatically to an unexpected but very serious problem and the field staff on their sensitivity to the special requirements of the farming community.


27. As noted in paragraph 21, under the Census Act 1920, completion of the Census form is compulsory[61] and persons refusing to do so are liable to a fine. Mr Cook told us that the criteria ONS used to decide whether to prosecute someone for non-compliance were firstly, demonstrable evidence that they had broken the law; secondly, the ability to mount a prosecution; and thirdly, a broader judgement of the commonsense nature of such a prosecution. ONS accepted that the estimated response rate of 98 per cent suggests that some 600,000 forms will not be sent back and they confirmed their earlier written evidence that only 86 cases had been referred to the Solicitors' Office for prosecution for non-compliance.[62]

28. We note the very low number of cases that have been referred for prosecution for failing to complete and return a Census form and we question what message this sends regarding the seriousness with which this offence is regarded. We recommend that ONS review the reasons for the very low prosecution rate. We also recommend that, in undertaking such a review, ONS research public attitudes to participation in the context of a mixture of compulsory and voluntary questions, as was used in the 2001 Census.

48   Ev 1, Ev 2, paras 3, 17, 18 Back

49   Ev 3, para 19 Back

50   Ev 3, paras 20, 21 Back

51   Q94 Back

52   Ev 6, para 58 Back

53   Ev 42, Ev 44, paras 6, 16 Back

54   Q51, Ev 42, para 7 Back

55   Q47, Ev 57 Back

56   Qq38-46, Ev 54 Back

57   Ev 6, paras 55, 56  Back

58   Ev 6, para 57 Back

59   Ev 53, para 3 Back

60   Ev 53, para 4 Back

61   The question on religion was voluntary (see paragraph 21) Back

62   Qq77-79, Ev 6, para 52 Back

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