It takes a peculiar talent to make a complete mess of running a Census. They only happen once every ten years (or now in Scotland’s case, 11) so there is plenty time to prepare and get it right, WRITES BRIAN WILSON

Yet for the first time, uniquely to Scotland, non-participation threatens to devalue the whole exercise. More than a month after the official Census Day, almost a quarter of the population has not made a return, rising to a third in Glasgow.  Another £10 million is to be thrown at the problem, possibly found in a St Andrew’s House cupboard normally reserved for lost documents.

The whole point of a Census Day is to provide a snapshot of society on a specific date – not spread over three months.  It has worked in Scotland for 200 years until the SNP got their hands on it. Then everything had to be different, just to remind us that this is “Scotland’s Census” rather than a boring old UK one which achieved near total participation.

There was no need to delay the Census from last year, when it was successfully carried out in England and Wales with an uptake of over 97 per cent. Neither was there a need for it to be outsourced to a recruitment agency based in the West Midlands. Nor was there a need to place such bias on online participation, as opposed to traditional – and highly effective – human contact.

Like everything our devolved government touches, “Scotland’s Census” was built on difference. Different date, different branding, different methodology, different questions – all of which detracted from the unifying sense of purpose which was an element essential to the Census. Unsurprisingly, doing it differently meant doing it worse, not least because awareness was diluted by a Scotland-only exercise.

I have youthful memories of my father, who worked in local government, acting as a Census enumerator, and the meticulous commitment he devoted to that task, just like thousands of others around the UK.  Deliver to every home … visit and re-visit to help those who needed it with completion of the form … collect on the appointed day. Hey presto, it worked. So get rid of it.

There was a real sense of national purpose about the Census and hence a civic willingness to participate. It was not just about numbers.   It also asked questions about housing, sanitation, health, employment  … the building blocks of information on which social ills could be identified and addressed. There was a perception of each Census acting as a milestone in shaping a better society.

The main reasons for such an unprecedented abstention rate is probably disregard for the fact that a substantial proportion of the population either do not have access to, or are uncomfortable using, on-line technology. When this emanates from commercial companies, it is inconsiderate and driven by cost-cutting. When applied by government to something as important at the Census, it is undesirable and unnecessary.

In making his statement which admitted the extent of failure, Angus Robertson repeatedly referred to the “incredible importance” of the Census.  What a pity then that so little consideration was given to the incredible importance of making it as straightforward as possible for everyone – particularly those least likely to complete an on-line version – to fill it in. This should have been the primary consideration rather than an afterthought reflected in providing a telephone number to call for a paper form.

“Scotland’s Census” still asks important questions but also includes ones which have no legitimate place. Perhaps another deterrent? Asking which ethnic group “best describes” how people self-identify, from a closed list, is one example.  Most of us are comfortable with multiple identities until someone makes us choose. Why should that invidious choice be a legal prerequisite for completing a Census form? What  social building-block does it provide?

Making such a mess of running the Census may not be the stuff of headlines but it is another reminder that, just occasionally, unity of purpose across the state we live in should take precedence over the unproductive search for identity-based difference.


The chronology of Covid in care homes is very important and should not be blurred.  One date that sticks in my mind is May 6th 2020 when the subject was raised by Neil Findlay, then a Labour MSP, who was personally touched by what was happening.

He told Nicola Sturgeon that he did not often plead but was doing so now: “Why on earth are we continuing to discharge patients from hospitals to care homes without establishing whether they are positive for Covid-19? Please stop that practice now to save the lives of residents and the great people who look after them”.

Instead of an answer, Ms Sturgeon turned on Mr Findlay: “Please do not ask such questions in a way that suggests that we are not all trying to do everything that we possibly can in order to do the right thing”.

As I wrote then, there was absolutely nothing in Mr Findlay’s question to justify that response which both deflected from the tragic reality and led to the MSP being subjected to a barrage of on-line abuse.

In the English ruling this week, the judge pointed out that  “the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from non-symptomatic transmission  had been highlighted by Sir Patrick Vallance … as early as 13 March” and was addressed in mid-April.

Why, in early May,  instead of snash towards an MSP who “pleaded” with her, could Ms Sturgeon not have acknowledged the same major error and guaranteed the practice would cease? That is a question which must in time be answered.

One comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more with Brian Wilson’s comments.

    The census has turned into an utter shambles. With closed question asking to to confirm if your ethnicity is that of a ‘ showman ‘ and even wilder questions about one’s sexual orientation or one’s beliefs it is not difficult to see how the census has been utterly trashed in the eyes of the general public.

    Indeed in response to questions about one’s beliefs I understand that many who have bothered to respond to the census, have to this question responded that ‘ they believe in biology ‘

    And since you can change your sex just about any day of the week in Nicola Sturgeon’s Nu Scotland one shudders to think what kind of responses are given to such questions.

    And so, for those that have bothered, the accuracy of the census data will be severely compromised. The public view of the census is utterly disparaged, and the census undermined.

    And the SNP response to this latest shambles, and a shambles that has cost tens of millions to deliver nothing, well that was summed up in Parliament by a belligerent Angus Robertson who darkly warned that the return of the census ‘ was a legal requirement ‘

    Yep Angus, the people got it wrong, not you, not this SNP Government, and if they don’t answer your questions are you are going to fine them – all one million of them?

    Utter shambles!

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