Think tank calls for change to ‘flawed’ census language question

A think tank has called for new legislation to ensure the next census in Scotland has a “better question” on languages.

Reform Scotland believes the current question is “flawed”, could encourage people not to tell the truth about what language they speak and suggests speaking languages other than English is “bad”.

They want it changed from “Do you use a language other than English at home?” to “What languages do you regularly use?”.

The intervention comes ahead of a stage one debate in the Scottish Parliament on the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill on Thursday.

In written evidence to Holyrood’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, Reform Scotland said the current question could “distort” the data if respondents believe answering yes to the question implies they do not also speak English.

The think tank argues the question phrasing could convey the assumption speaking a language other than English is problematic rather than beneficial.

They also criticise the census allowing only a single other language to be specified, as people may speak more than one at home.

In its report on the Bill, the committee recommended the Scottish Government considers this evidence in regard to the language question for the 2021 census.

Reform Scotland research director Alison Payne welcomed the committee’s recommendation.

She said: “Having more citizens speaking a wider range of languages should be an opportunity for all to learn more and help bring us together.

“However, we do not know precisely how extensively other languages are spoken in Scottish households, because sufficient data does not exist to tell us this due to the flawed nature of the census question.

“We can fix this relatively simply, by asking a better question, and indeed a question which does not suggest speaking a language other than English is a bad thing.

“A minor change will give us more accurate and better data which can help inform government strategy to encourage more people to speak more languages.”

The Scottish Government wants all children to learn two additional languages by the end of primary school.

The Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill adds gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of questions which can be asked in a census, but ensures answering these will be voluntary, not compulsory.

The questions which will be asked in Census 2021 will be considered via secondary legislation in the form of a Census order, which will be scrutinised by the Parliament at a later date.

A National Records of Scotland (NRS) spokeswoman said: “The aim of the language questions is to identify people for whom English is not their main language, and their level of proficiency in English to support service provision.

“We have considered the committee’s recommendations, and the evidence it has received, carefully and NRS will work with them for the next steps as we prepare the proposed questions to be asked to ensure the census captures the information needed to shape services in Scotland and reflect all of Scottish society.”