Scotland's census 2021: equality impact assessment

This version has been superseded by version 3 published in September 2020 at

2. Background

What is the census?

The census is the official count of every person and household in Scotland. It is held every ten years and provides the most complete statistical picture of the nation available. It also provides information that central and local government need to develop policies and to plan and run public services.

Scotland's census is taken by the National Records of Scotland on behalf of the Registrar General for Scotland. The National Records of Scotland is a non-ministerial department of the Scottish Administration, established on 1 April 2011, following the merger of the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) and the National Archives of Scotland (NAS).

National Records of Scotland's main purpose is to collect, preserve and produce information about Scotland's people and history and make it available to inform current and future generations. It holds records of the census of the population of Scotland from 1841 and every 10 years after that. The one exception was the wartime year of 1941 when no census was taken. Census records are closed for 100 years under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The plan for Census 2021 is that it will take place on Sunday 21 March, subject to Scottish Parliament approval, and will be conducted predominantly online. The last census was conducted mainly on paper (80%), and 20% online.

The Census Act 1920

The Census Act 1920 ("the 1920 Act") provides for a census to be taken not less than five years after the previous census. The 1920 Act applies to England, Wales and Scotland. In Scotland it is the duty of the Registrar General to undertake the census, in accordance with the 1920 Act and any Order in Council or regulations made in terms of the 1920 Act, under the direction of Scottish Ministers. In England and Wales, the responsibility for the census rests with the UK Statistics Authority and it is conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In Northern Ireland it is conducted by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

Section 1 of the 1920 Act provides the enabling power which underpins the taking of the census. It allows the making of an Order in Council ("the Census Order") which directs that the census be taken; the date on which it is to be taken; the persons by, and in respect of whom, returns are to be made; and the particulars which are to be stated in the returns. The form (or forms) used in the census are prescribed in regulations ("the Census Regulations") under section 3 of the 1920 Act. This is where the census questions, as they will be seen by individuals completing the forms, are legally set out. The questions must, of course, solicit the particulars set out in the Census Order.

A similar process will be followed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, reflecting the importance of harmonisation and of carrying out the Census on the same day across the UK.

If a person refuses to answer a census question, or gives a false answer, they are liable to a fine not exceeding £1,000. Currently, the only exceptions to this are the voluntary questions on religion and on sexual orientation and trans status or history, which were added by the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2000 and Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2019 respectively. Together, both Acts specifically exclude penalising non-response to these questions.

Why have a census?

For over 200 years, Scotland has relied on the census to underpin local and national decision making. Around 200 countries worldwide now undertake a regular census under the UN census programme. The census is the only survey to ask everyone in Scotland the same questions at the same time. It is unique in the provision of comprehensive population statistics. It is used by central and local government, health boards, the education sector, the private sector, and the voluntary sector to plan and distribute resources that match people's needs. The information collected must be "authoritative, accurate and comparable" for all parts of Scotland, and down to very small levels of geography. Only the census can consistently provide such information.

Basic information on population size, age, sex and location are crucial to work on pensions, migration, economic growth and labour supply. Other information gathered helps governments to:

  • identify housing demand and create housing supply including information on household size and family make-up which are crucial to policies on local housing demand and planning, and poor housing and overcrowding
  • identify areas of deprivation, enabling them to target services
  • gather data on equality groups, enabling them to tackle discrimination
  • gather information on housing.

Census information is also used for a range of social and economic indicators:

  • population estimates
  • employment and unemployment rates
  • birth, death, mortality, and fertility rates
  • equalities data, such as age, sex, ethnicity, religion/belief and disability.

Census data is also used by local public services to meet local needs in health, education, transport, planning, and community care services.

An example of how census data has been used to inform equality issues is 'People with a learning disability or developmental disorder – Summary of published analytical notes' report, October 2017.

In collaboration with National Records of Scotland, the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory investigated the demographic characteristics of people in Scotland reported in Scotland's Census 2011 as having a learning disability or a developmental disorder. The objective was to make comparisons of the characteristics of these two groups with those of the general population. This will help build a better understanding of the health inequalities experienced by people with a learning disability or with a developmental disorder.

National Records of Scotland calculated the cost to health board funding allocations if the census was not carried out in 2011. If census figures from 2001 had been used to make population estimates and allocate funding to health boards, in 2014/15 there would have been misallocations of between £30m and £40m. Some health boards would have received more, some less, than their appropriate share.[1]

Following the 2011 Census, National Records of Scotland, in conjunction with the other UK Census offices, explored alternative ways to produce population statistics. National Records of Scotland had an open mind in identifying potential options and examined and compared various approaches to counting the population, both here and overseas, engaged with a diverse group of users, commentators and public bodies, and undertook qualitative and quantitative research into attitudes to the census and population statistics. More information on the work which was done can be found in the Beyond 2011 section of the National Records of Scotland website.

Having considered all the evidence, in March 2014, National Records of Scotland recommended that a modernised 'traditional' census was the best way to meet users' needs. Specifically, National Records of Scotland announced its intention to focus on planning for a census in 2021 which will be primarily online, while offering alternative modes of completion where necessary, and also aiming to make best use of technology and administrative data in its design, building on the online approach used successfully in the 2011 census.

The main objectives of Scotland's Census 2021 are to:

  • produce high-quality results;
  • generate outputs that meet the needs of our users;
  • maximise online response rates for the census;
  • produce timely outputs to maximise benefits;
  • protect, and be seen to protect, confidential information;
  • do so in a cost effective way; and
  • make recommendations for the approach to future censuses in Scotland.

The census is for, and about, everyone in Scotland. In conducting it, an objective is to gather as wide a dataset as possible. It is recognised that people in Scotland have a wide range of needs therefore our designs have to take account of these diverse needs, and these needs may be influenced by them having one or more of the protected characteristics as defined in the Equality Act 2010. National Records of Scotland is therefore trying to make sure that firstly people are able to access the census in order to fulfil their legal obligation to participate and secondly to enable their access to the anonymised statistical outputs derived from the data collected from them, which in turn enable them to reap the benefits realised.

The numerous uses made of census data outlined above represent a key benefit and a positive impact of the census which is shared by all.

There are a number of barriers and challenges which can potentially limit or hinder participation in the census. These include lack of awareness, lack of understanding, privacy concerns, language, mistrust in/lack of engagement with officialdom, impairments such as physical or learning disabilities, and known limitations around the 'reachability' of communities and groups. Some relate specifically to digital participation, such as digital access or connectivity issues, lack of digital skills or confidence, data security concerns and mistrust of digital systems. In support of its objectives the programme is taking steps to address and overcome all of these challenges. Significantly, whilst the 2021 census will be predominantly online, paper questionnaires and materials will also be available. This represents a major mitigation against the risk of negative impact through digital exclusion.

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 brought together over 100 separate pieces of legislation including the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The Act provides a range of protection from discrimination for nine "protected characteristics": age, religion and belief, race, disability, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, and gender reassignment. The aim of the Act was to simplify, harmonise and strengthen previous protections. The Act provides protection for the protected characteristics across employment, education, and goods, services and public functions.

Public Sector Equality Duty

The Equality Act 2010 created the public sector equality duty, a single equality duty that incorporated the nine protected characteristics listed above.

The "general equality duty" came into force on 5 April 2011 and requires public authorities, and any organisation carrying out functions of a public nature, to consider the needs of protected groups, for example, when delivering services and in employment practices. It incorporates all the protected characteristics, although marriage and civil partnership is only partially covered. The general duty requires public authorities to have due regard to the need to:

  • Eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation
  • Advance equality of opportunity between different groups
  • Foster good relations between different groups.

Public authorities in Scotland subject to the specific equality duties are required to:

  • report on mainstreaming the equality duty
  • publish equality outcomes and report progress
  • assess and review policies and practices
  • gather and use employee information
  • publish gender pay gap information
  • publish statements on equal pay
  • consider award criteria and conditions in relation to public procurement
  • publish required information in a manner that is accessible.

A key reason for requiring census data on a range of topics is to be able to fulfil the public sector equality duty. Census data would, for example, assist public authorities in carrying out equality impact assessments when they assess and review policies and practices.

Equality questions

The Census already collects information relevant to a number of the protected characteristics. It includes questions relevant to the protected characteristics of sex, age, disability, marriage and civil partnership, religion, and race. It proposes to ask new questions about sexual orientation and trans status/history in the 2021 Census. In recognition of the sensitive and personal nature of these questions, it is proposed that these new questions should be asked on a voluntary basis, in the same way as the question on religion.

The Scottish Government has identified evidence gaps across the protected characteristics. These are set out in Scotland's equality evidence strategy 2017-2021 The strategy does not define projects to fill these gaps. Rather, responsibility for addressing gaps in data and evidence will be shared across a range of organisations.

Following a Topic Consultation in 2015, further engagement and investigation of how to improve the quality of data collected on equality characteristics continues, to meet identified user need for Scotland's Census 2021. This engagement has a focus on outputs and how census data can be more accessible to users for equality monitoring. Following a programme of research, stakeholder engagement, and question testing, National Records of Scotland set out recommendations on all of these topics in the Plans for Scotland's Census 2021, accompanied by the research findings on question development. It will be for Ministers and the Scottish Parliament to decide how to proceed.

Data Collection

Respondents will be able to complete the census questionnaire online, or can request a paper questionnaire for return by post. Enumeration processes include the use of a robust address list to ensure everyone can have a fair chance of completing a census return. This is complemented by deployment of a large field force who will seek to ensure every household and communal establishment is able to participate in the census. The Census Coverage Survey, which follows up a sample of the main operation, assesses the extent of coverage across the whole population.

Data Processing and Statistical Outputs

Statistical data processing, and the methodology underpinning it, will seek to ensure that all characteristics captured by the census are processed appropriately and consistently to best meet the identified user needs, and are considered throughout the data lifecycle. Statistical Disclosure Control policies and processes protect individuals, particularly those who hold certain protected characteristics, from being identifiable from census outputs.

Publicity, Communications and Engagement

The census website will feature the online data collection instrument and a wide range of help and guidance. Specifically, this will include a general content portal, the online census questionnaire engine, and specific questions guidance. The current proposed questions for each of the equality characteristics and the high level guidance which accompanies them can be viewed at Annex A.

Extensive user research has been conducted to support and inform the development of the online collection instrument, including the following strands of research: -

  • Information Needs User Research
  • Usability and Accessibility Testing Research
  • Online User Testing Research
  • Audience Discovery Research.

This work has specifically targeted potential users from a wide range of backgrounds and capabilities, providing valuable insights into the needs and motivations of different groups and communities. These include people with skills limitations, low literacy, reading impairments, English language limitations, people from ethnic minorities and care home residents.

Summaries of this work and its outcomes can be found at Annex B.

A free-to-use dedicated Contact Centre will be established and promoted to handle all census enquiries, fulfilment requests and complaints. It will be operated by fully-trained staff and will offer translation services, telephone data capture and other support functions.

Publicity, marketing and communications will seek to raise awareness and maximise motivation to participate amongst all groups and communities. Messaging will be tailored to a number of different audiences using a range of platforms, including social media and will seek to educate and reassure whilst highlighting the benefits of the census, and allaying concerns around security of data.

National Records of Scotland will seek to maximise response amongst those groups who are considered to be at most risk of non-participation, by building relationships through direct engagement with their representative and support organisations, and local authorities. This engagement will seek to identify, explore and maximise our understanding of the motivational, attitudinal and circumstantial barriers of relevance to each group. Community engagement activities will seek to develop knowledge and intelligence at local levels to inform messaging and tactics, including local and regional prevalence of target populations and the communications channels and networks they use.

Work to establish working stakeholder relationships to support this approach is already well underway and will grow and intensify moving forward towards 2021.

Digital participation

The public sector in Scotland is committed to respond to the changing expectations of customers by realising the opportunities that technology provides and delivering an increasing proportion of services online. Part of the Scottish Government's Digital Strategy is to increase digital participation in order to enable social mobility and tackle persistent inequalities. The online delivery of public services will also provide services which are easier, quicker and more convenient for people to use, and at a lower cost than other methods allow. The UK Government's Digital Efficiency Report suggests that transactions online are 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than by post and as much as 50 times cheaper than face-to-face.

In general terms Scotland can be considered a digital nation. The 2018 Scottish Household Survey (SHS) reports that home internet access has increased steadily over time, reaching an all-time high of 87 per cent of households in 2018[2]. Previously, other sources have shown that 40 per cent of people are reported to have a tablet computer (SCVO, 2015) and 63 per cent use a smartphone (Ofcom, 2015a).

While this information is a useful indicator of internet availability it is not necessarily indicative of potential response to a requirement to use the internet for a specific task such as completing a census form. A report published by the Carnegie UK Trust (Carnegie UK, 2014) highlights this fact noting that the barriers to getting online are multiple, varied and complex. They state that "being digitally connected is not the same as being digitally included". The same point was also made in a report outlining research looking at links between digital and social disengagement (Helsper, 2008) which notes "simply providing access to these platforms is not enough – digital disengagement is a complex compound problem involving cultural, social and attitudinal factors and in some cases informed 'digital choice'".

It is important therefore to have a full understanding of all factors influencing internet use before any assessment of potential digital participation can be made.

Everybody has their own individual set of circumstances and their own reasons for not being online. There are 4 main kinds of challenge people face: access (accessibility, location, cost, technology, infrastructure, language); skills (literacy, digital, security, confidence); motivation (risks, necessity, financial benefits, social benefits, health and wellbeing benefits); trust (identity, security, standards, reputation). The first two, a lack of access or skills result in 'Digital Exclusion' while the latter two, lack of motivation or trust may be best grouped with those situations where individuals have access and make use of the internet but will choose not to complete an online census as 'digital choice'.

Both exclusion and choice could have a significant impact on online response rates therefore it is important that a focus for Scotland's Census 2021 is on promoting online participation and not just tackling digital exclusion.

We are also keenly aware of the demographics and infrastructural aspects of the digital connectivity landscape in Scotland. Households with higher income are more likely to have internet access. Households with lower incomes and households in Scotland's most deprived areas were less likely to have home internet access than higher income households and those in less deprived areas, but the gap has narrowed in recent years. Internet access varies by tenure. Ninety per cent of households who owned their home and 91 per cent of those in private rented housing had home internet access compared to 75 per cent of those in social rented housing. The vast majority of households with internet access at home had a broadband connection in 2018 (99 per cent), and 46 per cent had access via a superfast broadband subscription, an increase from 30 per cent in 2017.[3]

The option of submitting census questionnaires online was introduced for the first time in 2011 to those living in households; those living in communal establishments were only able to complete on paper. Around 20 per cent of all returns were submitted online. The 2021 Census is being designed under the principle of 'Digital First' with a target online completion ratio of 80%. Development of the online collection instrument has incorporated a programme of user research to understand accessibility issues and therefore to inform an online delivery that is accessible. The move to a primarily online census, including a change in enumeration strategy (e.g. post out of contact materials instead of enumerator hand delivery), will reduce the direct contact between householders and field staff. Public assistance channels and services together with publicity and marketing, will have a critical role in compensating for this and encouraging and enabling maximum response. Public assistance services will be designed to encourage and enable those who can use digital self-service to do so, whilst helping those who cannot use self-service. National Records of Scotland will also provide a range of non-digital access channels but will encourage the public to use our digital channels. National Records of Scotland will support this channel shift by ensuring quality, ease and efficiency of our digital services and by providing assisted digital support. Online services will be promoted through a number of different routes, such as community engagement activity, publicity initiatives, websites, contact materials and information leaflets. To reflect the steep rise in the use of social media in recent years, there will be a much greater emphasis on the use of social media as part of the programme's marketing and publicity activity, to satisfy increased customer demand and expectation. We are monitoring broadband roll-out initiatives overseen by the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise which have set ambitious targets for broadband coverage across Scotland. We will continue to track progress against such initiatives to develop and maintain knowledge of those localities where digital access presents the biggest challenge, so we can best channel our support and assistance efforts.

Field Operations and Recruitment

The field force which supported Scotland's Census 2011 was in the region of around 7,500 staff who were responsible for hand-delivery of paper census questionnaires to the vast majority of Scotland's households. In 2021 initial contact with households will be by letter and field force responsibilities will focus on following up non-response. Field force is expected to be around half the size of that in 2011.

Recruitment and employment practices will be strictly in accordance with relevant employment legislation.

Census Rehearsal

As part of our preparations for Scotland's Census 2021, NRS undertook a public rehearsal in parts of Scotland.

NRS is aiming to make the 2021 Census more digital and accessible, available for completion online, as well as on paper. The rehearsal helped us to test our systems and processes as we get ready for the Census.

The rehearsal took place during October and November 2019. People living in households in parts of Glasgow City, and in Dumfries and Galloway, and Na h-Eileanan Siar were asked to help by taking part, and received a letter in early October with more information about the rehearsal and how to participate.

Unlike the Census itself, participation in the rehearsal is not a legal requirement. Householders in these areas were asked to take part on a purely voluntary basis to help ensure things go smoothly for the main Census in 2021.

Communal establishment enumeration operations were not included in the rehearsal activities.



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