A WARNING has been given that Scotland’s census is in danger of becoming even more politicised because the deadline has been postponed on the eve of the local elections.

The Scottish Government announced last week that the deadline would be moved back by a month ­because more than 600,000 households have yet to fill out the forms.

Questions over national identity and gender have caused ­controversy, with the former dividing ­Unionists and Nationalists over whether ­Scottish should be included as a ­national identity in its own right.

This and the question of gender identity have sparked increasingly polarised arguments on social ­media, leading to fears that the census – which is supposed to be a factual record of people living in Scotland – has become a political football.

READ MORE: Scottish Government to 'extend census deadline' due to lack of responses

There has also been a row over ­Scotland’s decision to postpone the census by one year because of the pandemic even though England, Wales and Northern Ireland went ahead with theirs.

The initial postponement has incurred an extra cost of £20 million and the new delay is costing another £9.7m.

Some analysts maintain that running the Scottish ­census separately from the rest of the UK means the data cannot be ­meaningfully compared because it has been gathered at different times and will also result in some people, such as those who have moved out of Scotland into other parts of the UK, being missed out altogether, while others may be included in two ­different data collections.

Various reasons have been put ­forward for the large number of ­people who have failed to meet the original deadline of March 20 despite the threat of a £1000 fine for failure to complete the census.

These include the fact that the census has moved online – although there is the option for households to ask for a paper form.

Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh said the decision to postpone by a year was the major source of the problems.

“One of the reasons the response rate is poorer in Scotland than in England is that, with the best will in the world, the publicity machine of the Scottish Government is not as powerful in Scotland as the UK-wide publicity machine,” he said. “Lots of people don’t watch Scottish news and they don’t read Scottish newspapers so it is quite possible that lots of people are still not really aware that it is taking place.”

While he agreed there was now no option but to postpone the deadline further in order to raise the number of replies, he said this was creating more problems as people were answering questions under different circumstances to those that had completed their forms by March 20, as required.

“For example, there has been some controversy about the gender identity question in recent weeks and I think there are reasons to be doubtful that people will now answer that in the same way as they would have done earlier. I am not making comment on the controversy – but the fact is that it is there and it is quite susceptible to controversy.

“Another example is the national identity question. There is an election coming up this week so there is much more awareness of the political context. It is a context in which independence and Unionism have been raised by political parties so I think that answers to the national identity question are going to be more politicised now in May than they would have been if answered at the original time.”

Paterson added that some of the controversies around vaccination and Covid had made some people very suspicious of any kind of centrally directed data gathering and their suspicions could have been heightened by the debates around Scotland’s census.

“It is very unfortunate that some people exploit others’ fears in that way but nevertheless it is reality and I think that may very well be fuelling some of this as well,” he said.

“It would be a real shame if the census became politicised because of all this. I have long had ­reservations about asking about all kinds of ­identity questions – whether it is ­national identity or ethnic identity or gender identity – and it is not ­because these are not really interesting ­research questions, but I don’t think the census is the vehicle to do it.”

He said the postponement could help people become more aware of their legal requirement to fill out the form but he cast doubt on whether the courts could cope if many don’t.

“Even if only 10% do not reply, the courts would completely collapse if they are presented with more than 60,000 new criminal cases,” he said.

However, the National Records for Scotland (NRS) said it was important that everyone had the chance to

respond as the information would be used to drive decisions around building schools, hospitals and transport needs, among other expenditure decisions. Commercial organisations as well as local authorities use the data.

NRS said that for every £1 spent on the census programme, it delivered around £5 benefit to the wider ­economy, adding that there was no problem in being out of step with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“NRS works closely with its ­partners across the rest of the UK and, as confirmed by the UK’s ­national statistician Sir Ian Diamond, there is shared confidence that the ­censuses across the UK will ­individually and together meet the needs of ­users for UK and within UK evidence,” said Pete Whitehouse, director of ­statistical services at NRS.

Questions on the survey were ­approved by the Scottish Parliament after being drawn up following ­consultation and testing with groups all over Scotland. A small number of voluntary questions include ones on trans status or history, sexual ­orientation and religion.

Whitehouse said similar questions about nationality were asked by the Office for National Statistics during the 2021 Census in England and Wales and were important because they supported a better understanding of cultural identity.

READ MORE: Probe launched after Census delay news leaked to the press

“It allows people to express their ­nationality before they go on to ­answer the next question about their ethnic group,” said Whitehouse, ­adding that the trans status or ­history question was developed in direct ­response to the need for information on the size and location of the trans population in Scotland.

“The data need was identified for policy developments that will ­reduce inequalities experienced by trans ­people and for designing and ­enhancing public services,” he said.

“The census is the only source which would provide reliable data on the size and locality of the trans population in Scotland. Testing has shown that the trans status or history question is acceptable to the public and produces good quality data.

“The inclusion of a gender ­identity question on a voluntary basis in the censuses for the rest of the UK will provide data about the size and ­location of the trans ­population across the UK, even though the ­questions are different.”