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 needslarge 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
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
disabilitiesprecisely 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:
Costa 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
The rest of this submission illustrates the
problems CAB clients have faced with case studies from CABx around
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 penaltiessome 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
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
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 laterthere
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
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.