Paul Lowe response to Ed Humpherson: Guidance on the sex question in the forthcoming Census for Scotland

Dear Ed,

Guidance on the sex question in the forthcoming Census for Scotland

Thank you for your letter dated 4 October 2020 and in particular your positive comments on the work National Records of Scotland is doing to deliver the census.

Stakeholder engagement is vitally important to National Records of Scotland and I am pleased that you have noted our commitment to continued meaningful engagement with our stakeholders. The clarity you have provided to stakeholders to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee and National Records of Scotland are made clear is most helpful.

May I also take this opportunity to thank you and your colleagues for your ongoing support as we work to deliver a successful census in 2022.

Yours sincerely

Chief Executive


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Ed Humpherson to Paul Lowe: Guidance on the sex question in the forthcoming Census for Scotland

Ed Humpherson to Paul Lowe: Guidance on the sex question in the forthcoming Census for Scotland

Dear Paul

Guidance on the sex question in the forthcoming Census for Scotland

I know how much emphasis you put on stakeholder engagement. In general, National Records of Scotland (NRS) seeks to engage with a wide range of users of its data and key stakeholders on its statistical developments and outputs, including on Scotland’s Census. I am writing about one specific area of concern that has been raised with us, but it is important to set it in the context of the positive approach that NRS takes overall.

The background is that I have recently been contacted by Professor Susan McVie and Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, who have asked me to consider the nature of correspondence received from NRS, regarding the guidance that will accompany the sex question in Scotland’s upcoming 2022 Census.

Specifically, Professor McVie and Professor Paterson cite two instances where, in response to enquiring about the potential for additional review of and consultation on this guidance, they were told by NRS that this would not be possible because the guidance is finalised, having been approved by the Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (CEETA) committee of the Scottish Parliament. Professor McVie and Professor Paterson feel this response is unsatisfactory because, as they confirmed with CEETA and as I have been able to confirm with NRS since, CEETA’s legal responsibility relates to the Census Order and the Census Regulations, so covers the Census questions, but not the guidance that will accompany them, which is not a legal document.

NRS have clarified to us that the letters to Professor McVie and Professor Paterson aimed to explain NRS’s view of the relationship between the Census Order and the guidance. In short, the NRS view is that the Scottish Parliament agrees the Census Order and Regulations and that, once this happens, NRS sees the guidance to accompany the sex question (which sits within NRS’s responsibilities) as also concluded. NRS feels that the Census Order and Regulations were agreed by CEETA and wider Scottish Parliament in full knowledge of the guidance that NRS had developed to accompany the sex question: therefore, in NRS’s view, it is appropriate that the guidance is now considered finalised.

Having reviewed the correspondence received by Professor McVie and Professor Paterson, I think that the letters they received from NRS could have been clearer. Indeed, when I first read your initial letter, I too interpreted it as saying that the guidance itself had been approved by the Committee, which of course is not the case. Regarding the guidance as finalised when the Census Order and Regulations were approved by Parliament is a policy choice made by NRS, and I do not think that this was as clear as it could have been.

Our recent Assessment of the Scottish Census sets our expectation that “Census offices should be open and transparent on their decision-making processes and in their decisions on Census questions and guidance, particularly in relation to any areas of contention.” During this Assessment, NRS told us you feel that you have benefited from public scrutiny and criticism of your sex question and guidance, and that you welcome the challenges from different stakeholder groups. NRS should continue to engage with stakeholders, meet any commitments it has made, and seek to provide answers or explanations on areas of concern, in a transparent and open way. In future communications with stakeholders, whether made publicly or privately, NRS should strive to be clear on its views, decision-making and position, presenting information in an unambiguous way to avoid any misinterpretation. I am encouraged that when we spoke you expressed your ongoing commitment to openness, transparency and clarity when engaging with stakeholders.

We appreciate the willingness you have shown so far to engage with users of statistics about collecting data on sex and gender more broadly. This has included NRS participation in a discussion hosted by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in September, which focussed on the ethics of collecting data on sex and gender, and participation in the Scottish Government Chief Statistician’s Working Group on Sex and Gender in Data Collection.

Thank you for taking the time to engage helpfully with us on this matter. As highlighted in our recent Assessment, overall, we are pleased to see the ongoing work of NRS to secure a successful Census in Scotland and your commitment to delivering high quality data and statistics.

Yours sincerely


Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation

Ed Humpherson to Paul Lowe (NRS): Assessment of 2021 Censuses in the UK

Dear Paul

Assessment of 2021 Censuses in the UK– National Records of Scotland (NRS) Response to Preliminary Findings

I am writing to you to share our feedback on the progress NRS has made to meet the standard of the Code of Practice for Statistics in its developments for Scotland’s Census. There has of course been a significant announcement by the Scottish Ministers to move Scotland’s Census to March 2022. This important decision has been informed by option analysis undertaken by NRS and we recognise the work undertaken to support this decision-making.

NRS will be going through a period of re-adjusting its plans given this decision and we recognise, through for example the news release and frequently asked questions on your website, that you have started to share information with users. As this re-planning progresses, we welcome your proposals to provide further updates and engagement opportunities to keep Census data users in Scotland fully informed.

Throughout this decision-making process NRS has worked collaboratively with the Office for National Statistics and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. As you continue to work closely to understand more about any impacts given the change of Census date in Scotland, Census offices should also ensure that UK Census data users have information on how their data needs will be affected.
The work of NRS to deliver a successful Census in 2022 will continue to be considered by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) as part of the ongoing assessment process. The designation decision for Scotland will only be considered when Scotland’s Census is completed and it is our aim that the UK Statistics Authority will decide whether to confirm the National Statistics designation, based on OSR’s advice, prior to publication of Census outputs in March 2023.

OSR’s advice on the National Statistics designation will be based on the trustworthiness, quality and value secured by Census offices. That advice will take account of the actions taken to address findings or requirements from OSR as part of our assessment process. Our assessment work to date remains relevant and will support you in delivering Census outputs that meet user needs. As such, we have reviewed the actions that your team has taken to address the findings from our Assessment Report 345: 2021 Censuses in the UK – Preliminary Findings. These findings aim to build on the existing work being undertaken by Census offices, providing further direction and focus on pre-existing plans.

While many of the Phase 1 findings can only be fully actioned or addressed over longer timescales, it is my view that NRS has responded positively to the assessment findings so far. I am also pleased to see the ongoing work of NRS to secure a successful Census in Scotland and to deliver high quality data and statistics. I recognise the challenges and changes in ways of working that have had to be managed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resilience of NRS staff during this period.

Since we published our assessment report in October 2019, my team has engaged with various members of your staff working on the Census to understand the improvements you have made since then. In evaluating how NRS has responded to our findings we have taken account of published materials from NRS including the evidence report Response to Actionable Findings from Phase 1 of the National Statistics Accreditation, alongside information gathered through meetings and workshops held with your teams. I consider that some actions taken by NRS are of note.

  • NRS has added to the material available to users through its website and improvements have been made to make the user journey more straightforward. NRS also uses several tools to highlight when new content is added to its website. In its development plans for its outputs website, NRS has incorporated strong elements of user testing and has actively sought involvement from Census data users in its development process.
  • NRS has published methods papers which have been discussed by its External Methodology Review Panel. This more-technical information provides detailed methods information for expert users, alongside stakeholder events which were run for the non-expert users and stakeholders.
  • NRS also published its Statistical Quality Assurance Strategy in December 2019 which was a detailed and well-written document providing assurance of the processes and strategies in place to assess and measure levels of quality. This document should give Census data users with greater confidence in NRS’s commitment to quality and quality management.

We consider that further action is still needed in some areas identified for improvement in our assessment report – this is partly due to changing circumstances such as the impacts on programme delivery given the pandemic. For example, NRS provided the assessment team with greater assurance on its approaches to the use of administrative data. However, little information is currently available in the public domain. It is important that NRS provide users and stakeholders with information on the data sources used in the Census and on its judgement on data quality and appropriateness for use. NRS should consider what provisional information could be made public and build on this as its research and understanding continues to develop.

We have included more detail about our judgement in an annex to this letter. I, or my team, would be happy to talk you or your colleagues through any aspects of this letter or Code compliance more generally.

I am copying this letter to Sir Ian Diamond, National Statistician; Professor Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician and Data Officer, Scottish Government; Peter Whitehouse, Director of Statistical Services, NRS.

Yours sincerely

Ed Humpherson
Director General for Regulation

Temporary exemption from Code of Practice for National Records of Scotland

Dear Pete

Following discussions with your vital events team, I am happy to confirm the exemption from the Code of Practice for Statistics’ standard publication time of 9.30am to permit a later release time of noon each Wednesday for NRS’s weekly deaths statistics. Given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic I welcome your endeavours to publish information on deaths weekly rather than to your usual monthly timescale.

I also welcome your decision to try to publish statistics in as timely a way as possible, supported by clear narrative and explanation of the data to bring clarity to public debate. This results in a tight turnaround of the death registrations. The exemption from 9.30am publication, and publication at noon, allows more time for appropriate quality assurance of the data and preparation of the statistics each week.

Yours sincerely

Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation


Related links:

Covid-19: Changes to Statistics

Compliance check of Healthy Life Expectancy Statistics (Scotland)

Dear Amy


We recently carried out a short review of compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics of the Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) in Scottish Areas statistics, prompted by NRS taking over responsibility for producing these from Information Services Division. Our review also covered the changes in methods used to estimate HLE introduced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in December 2018 that NRS has also adopted. Thank you for notifying us of these changes.

We considered the impact on users of the decision to move production of Scottish HLE statistics to NRS and the processes that ONS undertook to develop the new estimation method, including ONS’s consultation with users. Moving the Scottish HLE statistics to NRS adds value for users by bringing all life expectancy statistics in Scotland together in one place. Your decision to adopt ONS’s new estimation method means that the HLE estimates for Scotland produced by ONS and NRS are now consistent and will enable cross-national comparisons of HLE between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Local area estimates of HLE in Scotland will also now be available on a more regular basis. These developments will be welcomed by users. The methodological changes made by ONS have clearly improved the value of these statistics for users by removing some of the volatility that affected some local area estimates. As we indicated to your team in February, I am pleased to confirm that these should continue to be designated as National Statistics and welcome the statement you have included in your bulletin describing the recent developments to these statistics. Today I have also written to Iain Bell, Deputy National Statistician at ONS, outlining the rationale for our judgement on UK HLE statistics in more detail.

We have noted in our letter to ONS that the new estimation method relies on Census data which might not be available post-2021, depending on decisions taken about questionnaire content. We will be encouraging ONS, NRS and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to work together to ensure that harmonised measures of health and disability continue to be available after the next Census.

Yours sincerely

Mark Pont

Assessment Programme Lead


Related links: 

Mark Pont to Iain Bell (March 2019)