The number of New Zealanders fined for not filling out Census 2018 revealed

New Zealand's Government Statistician has revealed more than 50 people could be fined up to $500 for not filling out the 2018 Census which is required by law. 

Liz MacPherson, who currently heads Stats NZ as chief executive, revealed at a select committee review of the official data collection agency that about 60 people could be prosecuted for not filling in their forms. 

Stats NZ deputy Government Statistician Carol Slappendel told Newshub the agency prosecutes "a number of people for lack of participation" after every census. 

She said Stats NZ is "still in the process of going through the courts and that is leading to a number of convictions", but estimates about 60 people will be fined and face daily fines if they continue to avoid filling their form. 

"The fine levels are quite low - they've been that level since about 1975," she told Newshub. "We would not pursue prosecutions with people who were not able to fill out the form."

Slappendel said the agency goes through a process called "non-response follow-up" when staffers start door-knocking "and we know that people haven't provided their forms so we will follow them up". 

"It's through that process of repeat visits that we come across people who we will have interacted with and they will have made it pretty clear they will not fill in their forms... In order for us to mount a prosecution we have to have pretty strong evidence."

MacPherson resigned from her role as Government Statistician in August following a review of the 2018 Census which identified shortfalls in Stats NZ's 'digital first' approach. 

She conceded at the time that Stats NZ had been "too optimistic, placed too much emphasis on the online census, and did not have robust contingency plans".

Stats NZ deputy Government Statistician Carol Slappendel.
Stats NZ deputy Government Statistician Carol Slappendel. Photo credit: Newshub

Newshub asked MacPherson if it's fair to prosecute people for not filling out a census form when she has admitted that Stats NZ "didn't make it easy enough for everyone to take part".  

"We only ever pursue prosecutions if we've given people an opportunity to complete. If it's a situation where somebody wasn't able to then that's highly unlikely to end up in a prosecution." 

Filling out the census is required by law under the Statistics Act 1975, which says people who choose not to fill out their forms can be fined up to $500. 

More people were prosecuted for not filling out the 2013 Census. Stats NZ revealed at the time that about 100 people were fined compared to 72 people in 2006. 

A damning review of the 2018 Census this year highlighted how it "represented a significant change from its predecessor in 2013" and "unanticipated challenges resulted in a less than optimal outcome". 

The national population response rate for the 2018 Census was 83.3 percent compared to its target of 94 percent, the review found. That compares to a response rate of 92.2 percent achieved in the 2013 Census. 

The review also found that just 68.2 percent of Māori participated in the 2018 Census, down from 88.5 percent of respondents in 2013. The response rate from Pasikifa people was just 65.1 percent down from 88.3 percent. 

Liz MacPherson, Government Statistician and Stats NZ chief executive.
Liz MacPherson, Government Statistician and Stats NZ chief executive. Photo credit: Newshub

Statistics Minister James Shaw said in August some data was "likely to be compromised" because of the botch-up. But he said adding administrative information to those responses meant some the output would be improved. 

MacPherson highlighted that before the select committee on Wednesday, telling MPs the 2018 Census "has made clear the importance of administrative data". 

She insisted Stats NZ has "not violated people's privacy" by using administrative data. 

"We needed to make much more use of administrative data than we planned, and we weren't able to have the full consultation we should have."

National's statistics spokesperson Dr Jian Yang told MacPherson: "Just because you don't have time to consult doesn't make it right."

MacPherson said her "top priority was to make sure I'm counting as many people as possible... I took that responsibility very seriously... That's why we used the method we did". 

Labour MP and minister Willie Jackson told MacPherson Census 2018 "wasn't good for Māori", referring to the lower response rate. 

She said Stats NZ has "very complete counts for Māori through administrative data", but conceded that iwi affiliation data is low because that information couldn't be collected any other way.

She said Stats NZ is looking at collecting iwi affiliation data within government administration so the agency can't get caught out again. 

There were calls to bring the next census to 2021 because of the low turnout. But experts in the review have recommended that the next census be held in 2023 as planned.