Comment: Scotland's census delay is just another Scottish Government failure
The Scottish Government can’t seem to get much right, can it?
Whether it be taking charge of the benefits system – a plan hit by so many delays it is now running several years behind schedule – or choosing to go its own way on vaccine passports, the current administration seems to have made rather a lot of missteps in its bid to differentiate our nation from the rest of the UK.
Take the Scottish Census. Though the survey has been compiled variously by the General Register Office for Scotland, the National Archives of Scotland and their successor body the National Records of Scotland since 1801, for its entire history the process has been run in conjunction with the rest of the UK. That means that, with the exception of 1941 – because, war – every 10 years every single person living in the United Kingdom has been asked the same questions at the same point in time.
The snapshot the data has delivered has allowed policymakers to tailor their decision-making while also being able to make comparisons between the different populations living in the different countries that make up the United Kingdom.
Not this time. Though England, Wales and Northern Ireland pressed ahead with their 2021 censuses, Scotland begged to differ, announcing in July 2020 that our version would be pushed back by a year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The quality of the census data must remain robust and by moving to 2022 National Records of Scotland can continue to deliver a census which ensures the highest-possible response rate from people across Scotland," then economy secretary Fiona Hyslop said at the time.
Only that hasn’t proved to be the case. Okay, running its own census in its own time has allowed the Scottish Government to controversially allow trans people to self-declare their gender, but by decoupling the process from the wider census exercise it has also ensured possibly the lowest-possible response rate from people across Scotland.
Maybe Scotland’s standalone messaging on taking part went awry or maybe difficulties in accessing paper versions are to blame, but currently the proportion of replies is so low – 77 per cent of the population at the last count – as to render the data useless. With 97 per cent of English, Welsh and Northern Irish households taking part last year, the Scottish Government has had no option but to take the embarrassing – and costly – step of extending the deadline on its version by another month.
The gathering of information will never produce perfect results, but the census has always played an important role in informing decision-makers at all levels not just about the people they are serving but – crucially – how those people have changed. It is no exaggeration to say it is a key policy-making document.
There may well be very good and pressing reasons for Scotland to come up with policies that are particular to our population and wholly distinct from those needed in the rest of the UK – early access to the state pension could be one of them. But because our snapshot is different to their snapshot – and our snapshot might not ever be complete – it looks like, this time, we aren’t going to know.
No wonder Angus Robertson, who as minister for the constitution is responsible for the census, has been mimicking Keith Brown – the legal-aid-lawyer-dodging justice secretary and former minister for ferry contracts – by keeping such a low profile.