Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux


  1.  The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Treasury Sub-Committee of the House of Commons inquiry into the 2001 Census in England and Wales.

  2.  Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) deliver free advice from over 2,000 outlets throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. All CABx belong to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB), which sets standards for advice, training and other matters, and which also co-ordinates national social policy, media and parliamentary work. In 2000-01, CABx dealt with almost six million enquiries. With its national network delivering advice in a wide variety of community settings, the CAB Service is well placed to respond to new issues that people face such as the Census.

  3.  NACAB provided all CABx with information about the census so that they are able to deal with enquiries from the public. The helpline numbers were also provided.

  4.  As would be expected with an event as significant as the Census, affecting the whole population, CABx advised many people about the Census. Of these NACAB has received reports from over 60 different bureaux about problems their clients had in relation to the Census.


  5.  Clients mainly approached CABx because they had difficulties filling in the form. This was usually due to disability, language or literacy difficulties or a more general lack of confidence with form filling. Although help was available to people with special needs—large print forms and interpreters for example, as many people did not actually see their enumerators to request help, the main access to help was through the Census helpline. The helpline, however, proved to be inadequate for many CAB clients.

  6.  The helpline failed to cope with the number of calls and was unable to provide information easily and quickly, particularly to people with language difficulties or disabilities—precisely the people who would be mostly likely to want assistance. Clients also reported problems with the enumerators and Census forms not being delivered. We have also received evidence of clients being unreasonably threatened for allegedly failing to return their forms.

  7.  CABx expressed the following concerns about the Census helpline:

    —  Cost—a number of CAB clients were concerned that it was not a freephone number.

    —  There was no ability to go back in the system if the caller pressed the wrong digit.

    —  Reliance on touch tone phone technology.

  8.  There were limited sources of advice other than the helpline and the helpline was inadequate for people with disabilities, in particular those with visual impairments.

  9.  CAB volunteers expressed concern that the question on employed status did not allow them to record their role as volunteers. Not only did this mean that data about volunteering in the UK was not collected, but individual volunteers felt their activity was not acknowledged.


  10.  The following issues need to be addressed in the design of future censuses:

    —  It is clear from CAB reports that at the next steps Census should be taken to make the helpline free, user-friendly for all people and well staffed.

    —  Steps should be taken to ensure all enumerators do provide sufficient help to people who need more support and help with it.

    —  Help and assistance should be available for people whose first language is not English.

    —  The Census should be designed and delivered in such a way that takes account of the varying levels of literacy and skills in the population. Extra support should be provided for people with limited literacy skills to enable them to participate in the Census.

    —  In light, in particular, of the problems vulnerable CAB clients have experienced with form filling and the lack of suitable assistance at all times, caution should be exercised about threatening legal action for failing to return census forms. No action should be taken against people who failed to complete the form due to lack of assistance.

    —  The Census should include a question about volunteering.

  The rest of this submission illustrates the problems CAB clients have faced with case studies from CABx around the country.


  11.  Enumerators had a key role to play in offering assistance and help to people. But many CABx have reported cases where enumerators have been very unhelpful, even where our clients had advised them that they would be unable to complete the form themselves.

  A CAB in London reported the case of a client who advised his census enumerator that he could not read and write. However the enumerator not only refused to help him or advise him of the helpline number but informed him that he would be prosecuted if he didn't complete it.

  A CAB in North Wales reported a pensioner who was blind and lived alone. She was given the form in person by the enumerator but no help or guidance on completing it was offered.

  Two CABx in Yorkshire reported complaints by clients of enumerators being rude. One client was at home on a Saturday evening having just prepared his dinner when the enumerator called and insisted he answer some questions. The client said it was not convenient but the enumerator put his foot in the door, leaving only when the client said that he would call the police. The client came to the bureau very distressed. Another client was handed his form by the enumerator but his address was wrong. He tried to explain this but was simply told to fill it in or he would be fined £1,000.

  A CAB in the West Midlands saw a client, who complained that the delivery procedure had not been followed by their enumerator. The client and her husband both had limited sight and reading abilities. The person delivering their form however did not give the opportunity to request the help that had been widely advertised.

  A CAB in North London reported having seen between 70 and 100 clients with language, literacy or disabilities, visit the bureau with their census forms. No help was offered by the enumerator at the time although in some cases language difficulties would have been apparent. Many of them were very anxious about the threatened penalties—some had tried the helpline but couldn't manage it. The advisors were themselves struck by the very rapid speed of the recorded message and the general difficulty in following the automated system. Although there would be a follow up call by the enumerator to those whose forms had not been returned and at this point help would be offered, understandably many people were unhappy about waiting until after the deadline before being able to complete their form. The bureau also found out that the enumerators worked on a fixed fee which gave them very little time to spend with each house if they were to receive anything like a reasonable payment.


  12.  Many clients, whose first language is not English, approached CABx for help with filling out the forms. They often felt they were not given sufficient information about the translation services available.

  A client seeing a bureau in the Lancashire had seven people in her family and required help completing her Census forms. As she required an Urdu translator the bureau telephoned the helpline only to find there was only a recorded message.

  A bureau in Hampshire reported a Bangladeshi client who had tried to complete his form for himself, his wife and children, but felt he needed assistance of the helpline. The manager phoned on his behalf and found that it was necessary to negotiate through three "touch tone" telephone services before they could access assistance. Even then the provision for interpreter assistance was the final selection on a fairly detailed menu.


  13.  Britain has one of the lowest levels of adult literacy in the industrialised world. The Moser report from 1998 "Improving Literacy and Numeracy: a fresh start" estimated that one adult in five in the UK is not functionally literate. Thus it was no surprise that many clients encountered problems in completing the forms due to these barriers.

  A CAB in the West Midlands reported a client who had problems due to limited ability to read or write English, another had similar difficulties, but in addition had poor eyesight. The bureau comment that although the census form stated that its purpose is to help predict the needs of the population over the next 10 years, it ignores the question of whether they need help with the form due to literacy difficulties.

  A CAB in Norfolk reported similar concerns as they had had a steady flow of clients who needed assistance with completing the form because of literacy difficulties.

  Another bureau in the Suffolk reported a client who had had no formal schooling and her reading and writing were self-taught. The bureau was able to offer her re-assurance as she completed the form as well as information about Adult literacy courses.

  14.  This evidence does raise the question of whether the Census was designed in a way that took account of the literacy levels in the population as a whole.


  15.  Many bureaux saw clients with disabilities who were not able to complete the forms by themselves. Most clients did not know of any assistance available and felt there was not enough guidance given to assist with their particular needs.

  A CAB in Derbyshire reported a client who had problems getting through to the helpline; she had tried many, many times. The colour of the print on the form itself is not a helpful colour/contrast for people with any visual impairments.

  A client from a CAB in Oxfordshire who was partially sighted also reported similar difficulties with the pink colour of the form.


  16.  Most CABx which saw clients regarding problems with the Census, encountered problems with the helpline. The cost of phone calls even at local rate was found to be a concern to clients as they could be left waiting a long time. Most bureaux themselves were unable to establish contact and were caught in the system of hanging on and then being advised to call back later. CABx often find that elderly clients are confused, dazed and put off by call-centre technology which is very commonly in place now in the utilities and public sector.

  A CAB in the Northumberland reported a widowed pensioner who was severely disabled resulting from a stroke and had difficulty reading and writing. The CAB called the helpline for her and was kept on the phone for ten minutes listening to different buttons to press in order to speak to an adviser and arrange a time for an enumerator to call. Eventually she was told that there was no-one available and to call later. The client would not be able to make herself understood over the phone herself and so the bureau helped her to complete her forms. They reported another client with learning difficulties who needed assistance, but struggled with understanding which button to press and was concerned about the cost of the call.

  A CAB in the Hampshire reported an elderly client with a visual impairment who had contacted them for help with completing his form. He was unable to come into the bureau for help. The bureau accessed the census website but could not readily find information about help for those with disabilities. They then contacted the helpline and found: it was very difficult to get through; the recorded message was spoken very quickly and difficult to follow; there was no way to correct a mistake if a wrong number was pressed but instead told to phone back; it took two minutes to get through to an operator line and then if all the operators were busy, were simply told to phone back later—there was no opportunity to hold for longer than 20 seconds. The bureau called numerous times between 10.30 am and 12 pm without successfully getting through to an operator at all.

  A CAB in Sussex also reported two elderly clients who called the helpline and were told first to transfer, then to hold and then to call back later.

  Clients with limited English and complicated household arrangements visited a CAB in Wiltshire for assistance in completing their form. The helpline number was called three times going through all the options until the chosen option was reached when they were told that the lines were busy and to try again later.


  17.  Some clients contacted CABx because they were worried they had not received the Census forms, and thus missed the deadline to complete it.

  A CAB in North Wales saw a retied couple who were living in holiday accommodation whilst awaiting completion of their new home. They had not received forms and kept trying to get through on the census helpline number but kept getting the message "try again later". They felt it their duty and right to participate and pointed out that they could be fined for not doing so. They were worried and frustrated. The bureau advised them to request a form in writing.

  A bureau in the West Midlands reported that their client phoned the helpline three times to report their lack of form. The bureau phoned for them on the 1 May and again on the 17 when eventually they were told that they would be sent one within six days.


  18.  In view of the potential scale of the penalties for non-completion of the Census forms, it is particularly important that people on low incomes or people who are vulnerable for any reason are not threatened with a fine when it is totally unreasonable. But we have received a number of worrying reports from CABx which indicate this objective may not be adhered to in all cases. In addition CABx and their clients have found it difficult to contact the Office for National Statistics to discuss individual cases when fines were threatened.

  A CAB in South London reported cases of two separate clients both in their 80s who had received threatening letters from the Census District Manager about not returning their forms despite sending them three weeks previously. One of the clients was almost 90 and worried all night about it before seeking help from the bureau. When the bureau managed to get through to a person on the helpline number they were told that they did not need to complete new forms but that these letters were sent automatically to every person who needed to complete a form "just in case".

  A CAB in Staffordshire reported the case of woman who was suffering long term mental health problems. She had to have assistance to complete the form but then sent it off early. She later received a reminder notice, which caused her great anxiety. Both the client and the bureau tried to get through on the helpline but each time they were told to call back later. The client was about to go away for a couple of weeks so was concerned that she would not be at home to sort it out and the worry was exacerbating her mental ill health. The CAB commented that if forms were not received it would be much more helpful to have collectors visit, offer help and find out if there were any problems rather than send out threatening postcards.

  A CAB in the South Wales reported the case of a client who complete his form at the end of April as required. During the week 28-31 May he received a postcard and a small letter from the Census Office saying they hadn't yet received it and warning of prosecution for non-completion. The client could not get through to the helpline but when the bureau phoned for him they informed him not to worry and that the cards have been sent to some somewhat prematurely as not all the forms have been counted yet due to postal strikes etc. She also said that if it has been mislaid that another one would be sent.

  CABx in Surrey and Essex reported clients who returned their completed Census forms at the end of April. At the middle/end of May they received letters from the Office of National Statistics threatening prosecution without warning. The letters stated that after "repeated attempts to contact them" they have not received their form. Neither client was aware that any contact had been attempted with them.

  A CAB in Hampshire reported a similar case. The client also objected to the letter stating that they had made repeated attempts to contact her. Her husband is disabled and never leaves the house and had had no-one call. The bureau tried contacting the helpline for her for 27 minutes with no success and so later she tried for approximately three hours, again with nothing to show for it except a large telephone bill.

  Another CAB in Hampshire reported that their client and his wife had each received a census form. They both filled then in and returned them before the deadline. The client then received a letter from the Census Office threatening him with legal action if he did not return the form. There was no address or phone number on the letter.

  19.  Other clients have reported receiving a letter threatening legal action for non-return of their form when they had not received one in the first place.

  A North London CAB reported an Asian client with limited English who said that he had never received a census form and didn't know what it was about. He felt very intimidated when he received a letter threatening him with a £1,000 fine. The bureau had found it impossible to contact the helpline in order to assist him.

  A CAB in Devon reported a client who still had not received a Census form despite having requested one from the helpline number. They now report having received a letter from the Office of National Statistics threatening a fine if the form is not returned. But the letter had no contact details on it.

  A CAB in South Sheffield reported a client who had never received a form to complete, nor had any contact with the Census Office until he received a letter stating that he would be fined if he didn't return the form. The bureau rang the helpline and they agreed to send a form within a week. He was told not to worry as his details were now on the system.

  A CAB in North Wales reported a very similar case but neither they nor the client was able to get through to the Census helpline.


  20.  Volunteering is core to the CAB Service with over 21,000 people who volunteer in the CAB Service as advisers and on local CAB Trustee Boards. Many CABx have expressed disappointment that in the 2001 census the employment question did not provide an opportunity to indicate whether or not a person is a volunteer. 2001 is the International Year of Volunteering and a recognition of the value of volunteering is a key objective.

  21.  Not only did the census miss a valuable opportunity to collect data about volunteers, but volunteers especially those not in paid work perceived that their work was not acknowledged and felt marginalized and undervalued.

  22.  While recognising the important development in Question 12 which collected data for the first time on carers, this should not been seen to replace the need for information about other forms of voluntary work.

  23.  We hope that such a question will be considered carefully when the 2011 census is prepared. This will ensure that Government policy development on volunteering is better informed and more effective.

November 2001

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