'Lessons must be learned' after 2022 census costs Scotland £148m

More than 300,000 people opted against filling out the survey before the deadline - despite extensions.

Census lessons must be learned after significantly low return rate, says Auditor General of Scotland iStock

Lessons must be learned after a low response to the 2022 Scottish census led to increased costs and work, a new report has said.

The Section 22 report, by the country’s Auditor General, found that lessons learned from the census “will be crucial to planning for future censuses and surveys”.

Widespread concern about an initial rate of 79% saw this year’s census extended by a month, increasing the rate to 89%.

Ultimately, more than 300,000 people opted against filling out the survey before the deadline.

The Scottish statistics were also around 10% lower than those elsewhere in the UK.

National Records of Scotland (NRS) has claimed that the extension will cost it £6m between 2022 and 2023 – raising the overall cost to £148m, according to constitution secretary Angus Robertson.

As a result of the low response, the Registrar General for Scotland established an independent group of census and data experts to provide extra assurance.

It concluded that NRS had a “solid foundation” to continue to the next phase of Scotland’s census.

Population statistics produced from the census are used by government and other public bodies to plan services for the future and allocate funding. NRS reports that the first outputs will be available in summer 2023.

In September, the UK’s National Statistician Sir Ian Diamond said the census could still provide “really good” data despite a lower than expected return rate.

MSPs were told that administrative data was now being used to a greater extent than initially planned.

Constitution secretary Angus Robertson has said accusations of poor communication around the census “do not stand up to any fair scrutiny”.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The census is a vital data gathering tool that allows public services to be planned properly.

“It’s important that National Records of Scotland establishes why the return rate was significantly lower than the other countries in the UK.

“Those lessons should be shared and will be crucial to planning for future censuses and surveys.”

A data collection exercise undertaken in the final week of the census revealed that 35% of households did not return the census because they “were too busy”.

A further 17% said they were unaware of the census, while 14% did not know it was a legal requirement to complete.

Some 5% refused over concerns about privacy, government trust, the nature of questions and access to paper copies.

Conservative MSP Donald Cameron commented on the Section 22 report, saying: “It was clear from the moment that the Scottish Government decided to hold their census on a different date from the rest of the UK that it would cause trouble.

“Now the Auditor General has confirmed that this led to increased costs and a worse response rate than any other part of the country.

“He’s right that lessons must be learned – and I would hope Angus Robertson has the sense to accept them.

“The first of these is that the SNP must never again allow manufactured differences to distort the proper conduct of government business, wasting public money in the process.”

A National Records of Scotland spokesperson said: “As is the case across the UK and many countries across the globe, NRS’s modern census will bring together data from the initial census returns, the census coverage survey and administrative sources.

“NRS will bring these elements together using statistical methods and will deliver the high-quality census outputs and population estimates required by users.

“NRS is conducting robust evaluation across the census programme looking at all aspects of its design and delivery to reflect lessons learned.

“An end-to-end evaluation report on the census programme will be published and laid before Parliament.

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