Sunday, 13 March 2011

Don't return your census form early

This seems a topic that has generated much discussion, so I thought I'd comment on it.

In the United Kingdom we are having a census on Sunday 27th March 2011. It can be completed online or by sending back a census form that has been delivered to most households by now. The census is being carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Their website says, under the heading "When to return the questionnaire":

Census day is Sunday 27 March. Your answers should be about your household on this day. Please submit or return your completed questionnaire before, on or after this date.

On any analysis that seems a bit odd. Surely you should only be returning your census form after the date of the census since, though you can have a pretty good guess what the answers to the many questions might be, you can't know for certain.

As far as I can see, the ONS is simply wrong to suggest that early return is OK. This Census is governed by the Census (England) Regulations 2010, regulation 10 of which states:

10.—(1) Every prescribed person to whom a household pack has been delivered or on whose behalf delivery was taken under these Regulations must, on the day after census day or as soon after as is reasonably practicable—

(a)complete the copy of questionnaire H1 included in the pack, place it in the reply-paid envelope provided and send the questionnaire to the Authority by post; or

(b)return the information requested by questionnaire H1 electronically using such an electronic system as the Authority may provide for this purpose and in accordance with the instructions included in the accompanying pack.

Which quite clearly does not allow an early census return. Failure to comply with regulation 10 is made a criminal offence (albeit a very minor one) by section 8 of the Census Act 1920. There doesn't appear to be, in the regulations or the act, any power for the ONS to disapply these provisions or vary when the census returns may be made.

I'm not a census lawyer, so maybe I'm missing something here. What's more I doubt that it would be easy to prosecute someone for doing what the ONS has precisely told them to do. It still seems to me to be an odd way to run a census.


Steve said...

Our local Council does something similar every year. They try very hard to get you to do your electoral registration before the due date. As with the census, things could change.

No census form here yet

Anonymous said...

You're allowed to fill in and post your census early, or even fill it in and send off early online.

The website states that if sending it in early, it must show the state of your household as you think it will be on 27 March.

Francis Davey said...

Anonymous - its right that the website says you can and that it allows you to return your forms early. My point is that the website is wrong. Its actually a criminal offence to make an early return. This is because, however hard you try, you can't tell what the state of your household will be on 27 March since you can't foresee the future.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, it doesn't take much investigation before you get your answer:

That took me one google search, which was quicker than writing this reply. For a barrister, you don't seem to want to do much groundwork before mouthing off?

Francis Davey said...

Well, anonymous, you might try re-reading my post. What I'm saying is that Census England are wrong in giving that advice. I've explained the legal basis for my view. The link you point to (which of course I had read) does not engage with that.

Anonymous said...

From the CPS website:

"Part 2 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 creates, at sections 44 to 46, three new inchoate offences of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence; encouraging or assisting an offence believing it will be committed; and encouraging or assisting offences believing one or more will be committed."

Surely the director of the ONS (or one his minions) is guilty of at least one of these offences?

Family Tree Sleuth said...

It saddens me that the census will lose the snapshot element it has historically and will instead resemble a staged photo instead. A lot of my ancestors turn up on early census returns as guests at friends houses, workers who didn't live in but just happened to be working late that particular night and visitors who appear to be informal babysitters before the phrase was coined. The idea of everyone choosing in advance what connections they will or won't display on the census form is a great shame.

Wombat said...

I've been banging on about this on Twitter, but no-one seems to care. Presumably encouraging people to do it early is for practical reasons, but they are bound to lose a level of accuracy.

RB said...

Strictly speaking under 10(a) it seems to be illegal to complete (and therefore necessarily to return) the form before Monday 28 March. A bit draconian perhaps to prohibit completion on census day itself?

Anonymous said...

Changing subject slightly but still on the 2011 Census...The Census ask about a person's 'main job' only. Surely it would be beneficial to know how many people rely on a second income, have 2 part-time jobs or a full-time job and work a few hours a week else where??