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The biggest civil service union has called for the 2021 census to be postponed because of pandemic safety concerns and problems over a £45m outsourced contract to recruit tens of thousands of field staff.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has insisted that the once-in-a-decade survey of every household in England and Wales will take place on 21 March as planned. But the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents hundreds of ONS employees, says the pandemic makes it unsafe to conduct the survey.
It urged the agency to follow Scotland’s example by delaying the census by a year.
The PCS also called on ministers to remove private firms from involvement after the first attempt to outsource the recruitment of census field staff prompted a catalogue of complaints from candidates. The Zurich-based company Adecco was hired to recruit of 30,000 field workers, who will be sent to homes to remind people to complete the survey.
Candidates have told the Guardian that problems have included jobs being confirmed and then withdrawn; calls and emails repeatedly ignored; inadequate notice given before jobs are due to start; and at least one case of a job being awarded without references being checked.
An ONS insider said: “It is a dreadful waste of money … Blinkered senior [ONS] managers are leaving staff to sort out the mess and have not listened to a chorus of requests to delay it since last summer. Colleagues closer to the situation are pulling their hair out as Adecco are so incapable of reacting, performing or getting to grips with their workload.
A PCS spokesman said: “It is deeply irresponsible to recruit 30,000 people for door-to-door questioning of the public, when there are new, highly infectious variants of the virus emerging.”
“We have raised serious concerns over safety around the upcoming ONS census and taking into account Scotland has postponed its census, England and Wales must follow suit.”
It added: “Ministers must also remove Adecco from any rescheduled census work next year as private contractors have no place delivering public services which can be done in-house.”
ONS claimed it was too late to delay the census and that it was safe to go ahead, in part because it hoped 75% of surveys would be completed online. Field staff who will have to visit an estimated 6m homes who will be reluctant to complete the survey online will be given regular Covid lateral flow tests despite concerns about their accuracy.
The head of the census, Pete Benton, said: “Census field officers will never enter a household, they will always be socially distanced, be equipped with PPE, and work in line with all government guidance.”
Benton refused to answer specific questions about Adecco and the recruitment of staff. But he said: “Like everyone, we are operating in highly unusual times, and with Adecco, we have mobilised the recruitment drive in difficult circumstances and we are working hard to address some challenges candidates have faced.”
Adecco has not responded.
Jan Clare*, a census team leader who is due to begin work next week, said the recruitment process was “outstandingly poor”.
She said she was badgered repeatedly to provided details of referees but then given the job without one of the referees being contacted, despite Adecco’s claim that they had been contacted. She was interviewed in December and told she would be told within 10 days whether she had been successful. The job was confirmed after almost two months and only days before it was due to start.
Clare also said Adecco insisted on handing out work phones and computers in person rather organising delivery. She said: “There is no need to do this physically, it just seems silly in a pandemic, but it so difficult to get in touch with them that it is just not worth raising health concerns.”
Zoe Watson, 22, from Bolton was given a job as a census area support officer in nearby Chorley for £11.22 an hour. She said Adecco withdrew the offer after she failed to produce a driving licence, despite telling her interviewer that she could not drive and being told this would be a problem.
She said: “It’s demeaning. I was told it a ‘miscommunication’ but it wasn’t. They made a mistake and now I don’t have a job, and they are ignoring my calls and emails.”
Penny Jekyll, 56, a freelance event organiser from London, first passed a passed a psychometric test for a census job in November and had a Zoom interview for the role on 8 December. She still does not know if she got the job, despite passing DBS [disclosure and barring] checks and complying with numerous requests for documents and refusing official documents because they gave her name as Penny rather than Penelope, the name on her birth certificate.
“I’ve never come across anything quite as inefficient in all my years working,” she said, “it doesn’t bode well – and ONS seem to be aware that Adecco are making an absolute hash of it.”
A Facebook page where Adecco advertises Census roles has been bombarded with complaints from people complaining of calls and emails going unanswered and applications being “de-activated” due to lack of response from applicants who have spent days trying to contact the company.
Jack Nurse said he was given a job in Dorset but later told it was no longer available and that he would be placed on a long list. He said: “The process isn’t fit for purpose. It is a chaotic shambles. I don’t know how they’ll be able to handle the entire census. This is not going to go well.”
Pascale Robinson, the campaigns officer at the anti-outsourcing group We Own It, said: “There is no benefit whatsoever in contracting this to a private company, rather than running it in house. The government must think again, ditch its ideological obsession with outsourcing and understand that public services should be delivered in public hands.”
* Some of the names have been changed.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Call for England and Wales census to be postponed amid Covid concerns | Census