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Census has ‘solid foundation’ despite low return rates, expert says

Scotland’s census has seen return rates ‘lower than originally planned’ (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Scotland’s census has seen return rates ‘lower than originally planned’ (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Scotland’s census has a “solid foundation” to build upon despite return rates being “lower than originally planned”, the chair of an expert steering group has said.

Professor James Brown made the statement as National Records of Scotland (NRS) prepares to progress to its coverage survey – the next stage of the country’s census.

The exercise is a separate survey from the census, conducted door-to-door at about 1.5% of households to ensure an accurate picture of return rates has been recorded.

NRS is currently reporting a return rate of 87.5%, or around 2,284,582 households.

Five of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have seen rates exceeding 90% while 28 reported 85% or higher.

Prof Brown, who is leading a group of international authorities in providing external advice on the quality of the census, said the extension to Scotland’s completion deadline has improved consistency and returns across the country.

A low response rate at the time of the original deadline prompted the decision to extend the period for returns to the end of May.

Prof Brown said: “While the overall return rates are lower than originally planned, NRS’s extension has improved consistency and returns across the country.

“With this solid foundation, it is now time to move to the next phase and conduct a high-quality coverage survey.

“The coverage survey, combined with innovative use of administrative data, will allow NRS to estimate the size, shape and characteristics of the population as planned.

“The statistical methods for this are designed to be robust in a range of scenarios. This will ensure the census estimates are representative of both Scotland as a whole and its local communities, as well as enable comparisons across the UK.”

Paul Lowe, NRS chief executive and Registrar General for Scotland, said he was “pleased” the steering group reported a “strong position to move forward”.

Mr Lowe added: “I welcome the contributions they will make to steering our statistical and methodological work over the next few months.

“This will support us to deliver our census coverage survey and our work to identify the appropriate administrative data which can support our quality assurance work.

“Our wide range of customers and users of census data can be further reassured that this support and advice from the steering group will help NRS to produce a high quality census data set – one that will ultimately provide them with the right statistical outputs they need to inform future service planning.”

The Scottish Conservatives said the comments were an attempt at putting a “positive spin on a disastrous Scottish census”.

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron said: “Before Scotland’s census was launched, we were told that a 94% completion rate was the minimum required for the information to be usable.

“Yet, now we’re being told that a completion rate of just 87.5% is a ‘solid foundation’.

“If that is truly the case, why was the Scottish Government’s official census website quietly updated yesterday with what appears to be another extension to the deadline – this time to June 12?”

Labour MSP Sarah Boyack suggested the census is “not credible”, adding: “These dire figures are humiliating for the SNP but they should worry us all.”