• Kirsty McNeill

March 21st is Census day - but Scotland will have to wait

The next UK-wide census was due to take place on Sunday 21st March 2021. However, the census in Scotland has now been delayed until 2022. CRER’s Policy and Research Officer Kirsty McNeill considers the potential impact of the delay for race equality policy and practise.

The census has collected information about the population every 10 years since 1801 (except in 1941, when no census was taken due to the Second World War). It is the most complete source of information about the population that we have. National censuses in Scotland have previously been taken on the same dates as those in other countries of the UK, and the next UK-wide census exercise had been planned for March 2021.


However, Scotland’s census will now take place a year later, in March 2022. National Records of Scotland (NRS), responsible for Scotland’s census, recommended a delay after consideration of the options available to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19. Covid-19 meant that preparations in the year before the census, such as community engagement, had not been able to take place. This led to concerns that less people would respond, and the quality of data collected would be impacted.


Further, NRS officials have stated that the Office for National Statistics (ONS), responsible for the census in England, has solutions available in the case of a low response rate to their census such as access to alternative datasets to fill gaps, which are not available to the NRS if the response in Scotland is low.


The proposed year-long delay to the census was announced in the Scottish Parliament last year and agreed to by the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee in late October 2020. Following this, a debate took place in the Scottish Parliament on the question of the delay on the 11th of November 2020.


Some MSPs were against a delay as this would put the Scottish census out of sync with those of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Maurice Golden MSP voiced that this will make it more difficult for academics in Scotland and elsewhere to carry out vital research and scrutiny, as UK-wide population statistics are used to calculate key economic and social indicators, such as unemployment and mortality rates.


Despite this opposition, the Parliament agreed to the Scottish census being delayed to March 2022.


As highlighted in the debate, with a year between Scotland’s census and those of the rest of the UK, this could lead to data comparability issues, affecting the insights that can be drawn from data. The delay has attracted criticism outside Parliament, including from some academics, with one commentator stating the delay is an ‘act of scientific vandalism’ with all UK data comparisons being necessary for good policy.


Being out of sync with the censuses in other countries of the UK has implications for race equality work in Scotland. It has the potential to be an issue for work which includes analysis at a UK level, or involves comparison of Scottish data to the rest of the UK. For example, at CRER we sometimes compare data between Scotland and the UK to make observations about the presence of racial inequality in Scotland measured against the UK as a whole; this helps determine if a problem is Scottish-specific or UK-wide. If we are not comparing the same data, this analysis becomes less precise.


Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture, in response to a question on mitigating the impacts of the census delay has said the NRS will work closely with the ONS and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to minimise the impact on UK data coherence to ensure that high quality data is available to inform policy, investment decisions and the planning of services.

Aside from being out of sync with other UK countries, there are further implications of the delay to consider in terms of race equality work. Scotland’s census is critical as it currently provides the most robust, comprehensive information on ethnicity for the population. The data is used for resource allocation, policy planning, equality monitoring and research; the census variable ‘ethnic group’ is one of the most widely used.


Census data can tell us about economic activity, occupation, student status, housing tenure, transport used and other variables by ethnicity. Some examples of use of ethnicity data from Scotland’s Census 2011 include the research and policy work associated with the development of the Scottish Government's Race Equality Framework 2016-2030

and work carried out during the Scottish Health and Ethnicity linkage study, examining health outcomes by ethnic group.


However, each year that passes, data utility decreases due to ever-changing population demographics. In the ten years between the 2001 Census and 2011 Census, BME groups in Scotland doubled from two to four percent of the population. Whilst it is certain that the number of BME people in Scotland has increased since 2011, until we get the data from Scotland’s next census we cannot be sure of this (or more precisely, we cannot be sure of the degree of increase).


Yet, with the census delayed, ethnicity data won’t be available until winter 2023/24[1]. Until this point, ethnicity information used in crucial decision making will be well over a decade out of date. Using data which is up to 13 years out of date is less than ideal. It means that resources may be under allocated, priorities may be skewed, and on-going equalities monitoring will not reflect Scotland’s population.


One of the reasons that the census is so critical to race equality work is that often other datasets, such as the Scottish Household Survey or the Annual Population Survey, do not have enough representation from BME people to give accurate or meaningful data. CRER research found that the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework is missing data on ethnicity for most indicators, in many cases because the data sets used do not have adequate ethnicity data. Without the data, policy action on race equality is difficult to secure.


Given the overreliance on census data, the time between censuses and the increasing diversity of Scotland, it’s time for improvements in ethnicity data availability in Scotland.


This is why CRER have previously called for the Scottish Government to ‘“Include analysis and narrative on racial disparities within all progress reporting on the National Performance Framework, and where data disaggregated by ethnicity is not available, make the necessary investments or policy changes to address this”. This would involve utilising other sources of data, such as the Scottish Surveys Core Questions, to investigate the experiences of BME people in Scotland.


A lack of data makes effective policy to address the needs of BME people in Scotland more difficult. Even when we have the next census data in late 2023/early 2024, this information will inevitably go out of date. Urgent action is needed to diversify our sources of comprehensive data on ethnicity in Scotland.



[1] Data on ethnicity from the delayed Census will fall under the third release, which NRS are aiming to publish in Winter 2023/2024.

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