Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 173)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

MS CAROLINE ELLIS AND MS FAZILET HADI

  160. That is a very helpful summary. Were these shortcomings that you have listed, these four main areas, unique to this Census or is there any collective memory of whether they occurred in the previous Census back in 1991?
  (Ms Hadi) I may not be correct but I think there was some progress in this Census in terms of actually providing information in other formats and the Census questions in other formats. I was not working in the field ten years ago but I do not remember that facility. I think there was one step forward and perhaps a few more steps that were not taken.

  161. Can you help us as to whether blind or partially sighted people were able to take part in the previous Census or not?
  (Ms Hadi) I am sure a lot of us did take part. I am sure we asked friends, family, asked for help in completing the form. In a way maybe that was more acceptable ten years ago whereas culturally now I think a lot of us expect our need to operate independently will be much more taken on board, particularly in the light of things like the Disability Discrimination Act and human rights legislation. To answer your question, probably culturally our expectations were probably lower then as blind people but also I do not think any special arrangements would have been made ten years ago.

  Chairman: Thank you. I am going to ask Nick Palmer, who is on your right, to ask a few questions.

Dr Palmer

  162. Good afternoon. I wanted to refer back to evidence that we were given from the Office for National Statistics. They said there had been extensive and prolonged consultations with the RNIB about the availability of explanatory material in Braille and audio tape form, but they said that subsequently you considered the steps taken were not sufficient and you mounted a campaign in the weeks immediately before the Census for the Census form itself to be in Braille and for other improvements. Would that be a fair description of the events?
  (Ms Ellis) My understanding is that we were invited initially to a consultation in about October 1999 to talk about the form and we expressed some horror when we saw what was intended to be the standard Census form because it was in small print, the contrast was very bad, it would present difficulties for anyone with sight problems. We were told that it was too late to change that but ONS was willing to look at providing information about the Census and also the questions in alternative formats. We also raised issues around the need for perhaps a password scheme so that when enumerators called on a blind person's door they had some means of identifying the fact that was an enumerator and not somebody who had come to rob their home. We subsequently started getting calls from blind and partially sighted people specifically about the issues of the Census and would they be able to participate independently. There were a number of these calls so at that point we decided we had to make serious representations to ONS to say there was quite a strong feeling out there about this issue. We put it to them that satisfying the need people felt to make independent returns was not actually going to be that problematic, it could be done within the existing systems without too much fuss. We were told then it would be administratively too difficult and it might have cost implications. We kept on about that and we kept on getting more and more calls from blind and partially sighted people and it was very clear to us there was a great strength of feeling out there. This was months, if not a year, beforehand. Then it got to such a point that we had a protest basically in 2001 before the Census, when the Census help line opened. Our concern was to basically give people a means of expressing their frustration and making the point so that it was actually taken on board with a view to getting the arrangements completely right next time.

  163. So, as I understand it, the initial discussions in September or October 1999 focused on the explanatory material after they had said that the form itself could not be changed at that point but subsequently the level of protest was such that you felt the need to campaign more on the subject of the form itself. Would that be a fair summary?
  (Ms Ellis) Getting even the accompanying information right and the questions and organising that and advising them on how you should present it in a large print, that involves a lot of time and discussion so even that itself was a big task. Ideally, that whole process would have started years in advance. Luckily now we are in the position where ONS realise the discussions have to start now about what happens in ten years' time and that is absolutely right because now we are in a position to be able to influence the design standard Census form which we were not in 1999.

  164. Do you think with the benefit of hindsight that it would have been better if the RNIB had taken the initiative to take these concerns to the ONS before the design of the form was finalised? I realise they only consulted you at that point but perhaps you should have taken it up yourselves.
  (Ms Ellis) We always have a number of issues that we are campaigning on. One recent one was to do with the civil right and obligation of voting and we were very consumed with enabling people to be able to vote independently, and we work in a number of different areas. The problem of social exclusion crosses all different issue boundaries and we ought to be able to expect the Government at least to consider whether a particular issue will have an impact on particular groups of disabled people.
  (Ms Hadi) We have something called See It Right guidelines which are around good practice and alternative format production. They have been around since 1993. They are broadly endorsed by the Government. We are a charity and I do not think it is our duty to search out every government body or even private sector body and tell them what best practice is.

  Dr Palmer: Thank you.

Mr Plaskitt

  165. The National Statistician, when he was before us, told us that he thought the criticisms that you had made of the Census as an organisation were "extreme". Why do you think he says that?
  (Ms Ellis) They were taken aback, as I think they would admit, by the strength of feeling. All we were doing was basically channelling that and expressing that, so our tone simply reflects the tone of communications that we have had from blind and partially sighted people. Since the DDA came into effect, which means that service providers should be providing information in accessible formats, has empowered people in a way to demand more accessible information and the sense that they are entitled to information in that format is growing, and rightly so. Our tone reflects the tone of the communications that blind and partially sighted people have been having with us. It reflects their views.

  166. So your interpretation of his use of the word "extreme" was in relation to the tone of your criticism and not the content of your criticism?
  (Ms Ellis) It is a fundamental human rights' issue whether you are entitled to in private and confidentially fill in the Census form. Sighted people in a household were given that right and visually impaired people were not given that right. That is an issue that you would feel very strongly about and hence the strength of feeling took them aback. That is why they may have regarded it as extreme. In fact, it is just that it is a potentially severe infringement of human rights.

  167. How do you feel your relations with the ONS are at the moment now that the Census is over?
  (Ms Hadi) I personally think that even when there were tensions publicly, between us privately we were always talking and we continue to talk. Recently our Director-General has met with Len Cook and we are looking forward to building on what we have both learned. I hope there is no damage because we all make mistakes and we can all learn from them.

  168. You feel reasonably confident then that the valid point that you are making will be taken on board and will be reflected in the design and the operation of the next Census?
  (Ms Hadi) It would be nice to have the support of committees like that in making sure that happened. Also I do not know whether this is true or not, I never got to the bottom of it but certainly when I met the Deputy Director of the Census Office just before the Census took place, he said that he felt that one of the reasons they could not accede to the request for receiving survey forms in alternative formats was that he felt the Regulations did not permit him to do that. If that is the case—and I do not know enough about it to know—I would ask that the Regulations do not curb the Census operators in that way.

  169. That is a useful comment. Finally, have you kept a tally of complaints? Do you have an estimate of how many blind or partially sighted people were unable to complete the Census and how many had to seek help to complete the Census?
  (Ms Ellis) We do not have any statistics on that. What I do have is a bulging file of case studies, people who wrote in, sent e-mails, people who sent information and feedback and we had some feedback from local societies of blind and partially sighted people who often ended up being very closely involved and coming to the rescue. When enumerators either in some cases would not give people assistance to complete the form or felt otherwise unable to it, it was often local societies that stepped in and acted in a voluntary capacity to help their members with form completion. I think people were almost determined to participate and eager to participate. They realised that on the basis of their information future services would be planned that will benefit them, so everyone had a really strong desire to participate so, no, we do not have any statistics, we have case studies.

  170. Finally, Chairman, at this stage are you able to say what would be your top priorities for changes in the way the Census is either constructed or conducted next time round?
  (Ms Hadi) I think we are. We set some of these out in our paper but, as Caroline said earlier, a well designed mainstream Census form that will help sighted people as well as people with sight problems, improved training of enumerators and the issue about the identity pass card so that people know who they are, not just braille but alternative formats for information and questions, but also a way of responding in an alternative format as well, staff who are trained to answer queries and know what large print is and do not just tell people that they should struggle with the form because the print is big enough already. We have set out some of these and we would be very happy to engage in more detailed discussion with the Census operators to build in these things early on so that we get it right next time.

  171. That is very helpful. One quick supplementary, if I may. If the Census in the future were to switch from a paper-based operation to an electronic-based operation, would that help you or throw up another set of problems?
  (Ms Hadi) Some blind people are very technically literate. A lot are not. A higher proportion of blind and partially sighted people do not have access to the Internet and would find it harder. If it were an option then some blind people would welcome it. It does throw up other problems about accessibility in terms of web accessibility. We would not want to see it as the solution, but if it were part of a package of ways of responding, we would welcome it.

Chairman

  172. The National Statistician told us that we did this Census as well as anyone else he knew. Is there another country that you are aware of that does this better for blind or partially sighted people that you could direct us to?
  (Ms Hadi) No but we could find out.

  173. Will you do that?
  (Ms Hadi) Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you both very much indeed for coming to see us this evening.





 
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