No 6
ROME, 1995



The importance of an agricultural census for both the national economy and individual users is such that many countries have introduced legislative measures to support the development of their agricultural statistics, in general, and the agricultural census in particular.

The agricultural census legislation is, in most countries, an integral part of legislation on statistics in general. It covers administrative matters such as designating the office responsible for the organization, and financial matters concerning the budgetary arrangements. In many countries the frequency and scope of the census are also covered. Perhaps the most important part of the legislation refers to obligations to respect the confidentiality of the respondent data, and obligations of respondents to provide data to the best of their knowledge. In both cases sanctions may be envisaged.

The purpose of this chapter is to present only a broad approach to the subject and give some ideas to the responsible national officers regarding the improvement or introduction of national legislation in taking an agricultural census. Those who have more interest in the matter may refer to the FAO Legislative Study no. 32 "Agricultural census legislation" (1984).

In the annex to this chapter an extract of the Statistics Act of Canada is shown as an example of legislation on statistics.


1.1 The General Assembly of the International Institute of Agriculture at Rome, at its biennial meeting in May 1924, authorized the Institute to proceed to promote the taking of an agricultural census in 1930-31 in all countries. Since then, governments have recognized the need for a legislative basis for conducting their own agricultural census. Decennial (the now customary frequency) censuses entail major commitments of resources, and it is essential that legislative provision be made for their preparation and implementation.

1.2 Census legislation, or the collection of laws governing census activities, is one of the first aspects to be considered when starting to plan the census, since it constitutes one of the most important instruments for facilitating the census work. This can be a law of a general nature granting a specific agency in the government the authority to gather wide-ranging information. Usually, such a law would either be a provision in the constitution of the country or specific legislation creating a statistical agency and specifying its broad statistical functions.

1.3 Legislation should normally deal with the following:

1.3.1 Scope and coverage. The 40 national texts on census legislation examined indicate that the agricultural census covers a broad range of subjects. The scope of the agricultural census should be described in general terms in the Principal Act, thus leaving details for inclusion in the subsidiary legislation. This approach will provide the census agency with the desired flexibility in planning the operation and in including items of information pertinent to thetime the census is taken. It should be specified whether the census is to cover the whole country or whether certain regions are to be excluded - as may prove necessary in some countries with thinly populated areas or difficult communications. Exclusion may be complete or certain census operations postponed until a later date.

1.3.2 Frequency of the census and time reference. The rapid changes occurring in the agricultural sector have to be taken into account in determining the frequency of the agricultural census. In some countries where the ten-year interval is too long because of these rapid changes, quinquennial or more frequent censuses are needed. The frequency is usually determined in the Principal Act. Such an enactment would establish the legislative or budgetary authority for the census to be taken at regular intervals and for the provision of the necessary funds. The permanent census organization can therefore plan well ahead, or the ad hoc census body can be organized well before the scheduled date. On the other hand, the timing established by the Act will not be mandatory where budgetary funding cannot be found. In any case, the frequency indicated is intended to provide a general guideline. An agricultural census may consider as time reference either a situation at a given date or a certain time span, the distinction depending upon the specific subjects of enquiry.

1.3.3 Responsibility for the census. The primary administrative body responsible for the census should be indicated in the Principal Act. Subsidiary legislation, however, may call upon other government agencies to participate in the census effort either with a coordinating function or by providing assistance or personnel. In these instances, it is advisable to make clear in the subsidiary legislation that the operation is in accordance with the plans drawn up by the primary administrative body in order to prevent cooperating agencies or local governments from independently introducing innovations for their own purposes, which could disrupt the timetable of operations.

1.3.4 Administrative and financial provisions. The Principal Act should grant the census agency full executive authority over the administrative organization of the census. In countries where the appointment of personnel is governed by specific civil service regulations, such authority may include powers to recruit and appoint temporary field personnel without the usual strict procedural or documentary requirements attached to ordinary appointments. The Act should also vest full authority over the budget in the census agency. Usually, the funds for a census are allocated in the relevant section of the national budget, in an amount recommended by the census agency. The ideal census budget assigns the agency authority to reallocate resources when unforeseen difficulties arise, especially during the final stages. When other agencies are called upon to participate in the census operation, the relevant enactment may also indicate whether or not their expenses are to be borne by the respective agencies themselves.

1.3.5Obligations of the public with respect to the census. The obligation of the public to cooperate in the census operations is normally provided for in the Principal Act, and will very likely be reiterated and treated in detail (including the provision of penalties for non-cooperation) in subsidiary legislation. Refusal to be interviewed or to furnish the data needed, or giving false information or delaying the submission of returns, can be punishable acts. Holders often tend to be sceptical of statistics and the usefulness of theagricultural census; they may consider the census to be an interference in their personal affairs and a prelude to an increase in taxes. For this reason, as a part of the publicity campaign, the legal status of the census should be publicized so that people are aware that the information they supply will be treated in confidence and that they are required to give the information asked of them. It is not sufficient to print excerpts from the legislation on the questionnaire so that only some people read it at the time of the census. The census legislation should be made known well in advance through the media as well as through publication in the official gazette, and should at least be made available to the farmers' associations.

1.3.6Identification, protection and obligations of enumerators. The identification, protection and obligations of enumerators can be additional matters for which the legislation may prescribe. Proper identification papers for the enumerators are essential to ensure the confidentiality of the information and the obligation of the respondent to cooperate. As a matter of policy, identification papers should be shown to the respondents to protect the public from impostors. At the same time, adequate protection should be provided to the enumerators in the form of insurance against accidents, in addition to what they may receive under the workmen's compensation laws. Setting down their specific obligations in the subsidiary law can make the enumerators better aware of their functions and make it less likely that they will abuse or neglect them.

Main features of census legislation

1.4 In the following sections, a description is given of some of the major aspects of national laws/decrees of several countries that participated in the 1970, 1980 and 1990 censuses. The following five topics were selected as a basis for their presentation:

  1. Juridical basis of agricultural census legislation.
  2. Authority for the promulgation and execution of legislation.
  3. Scope of census legislation.
  4. Contact with the respondent and obligatory collaboration.
  5. Confidentiality of information and penalties.

Juridical basis of agricultural census legislation

1.5 One of the first steps to be taken when agricultural census legislation is being prepared is to consider any relevant legislation the country may have in its statutes and any international undertaking it may have entered into. Typically, a starting point will be the law governing all official statistical activities. In some cases powers to issue the relevant census enactment are provided for in the country's constitution. Also, the international agreements entered into by countries (e.g., European Union) to carry out agricultural censuses constitute the necessary juridical basis.

Authority for the promulgation and execution of legislation

1.6 Powers to order the taking of a census vary with the legislative systems of the respective countries. In keeping with the general patterns of lawmaking, basic acts will emanate from the legislative assembly, usually with the formal assent of the Head of State. These in most cases empower a minister or charge the appropriate agency respectively to issue enforcement decrees and prescribe operational procedures.

1.7 While the authority in charge of technical work is generally the national statistics office, the census executing authority varies considerably from country to country.

Scope of census legislation

1.8 Broadly speaking, the general pattern followed in legislation is for a Principal Act to state principles or to institute a census or order its taking, perhaps setting up a special body for that purpose, and to empower a minister to prescribe rules and introduce amendments where otherwise a time-consuming parliamentary procedure would be needed.

1.9 Among the countries participating in the 1980 World Census of Agriculture, three had only a single section on census legislation and, at the other extreme, one country had as many as 47.

1.10 Countries differ with respect to the degree of detail in their census legislation. Some enactments even prescribe in detail the questions to be inserted in the questionnaires; in others, only general directives are given. In other cases, the legislative authority does not intervene at all, thus allowing full freedom of interpretation to the census executing authorities.

Contact with the respondent and obligatory collaboration

1.11 The law should mention the participation of the respondent in the agricultural census. Normally the text prescribes the freedom of access to holdings for the enumerators or invites respondents to give information at the data collection centres.

1.12 The legal obligation to cooperate in the census is a common denominator of all countries considered in this study. The taking of an agricultural census is considered a task of national interest in which all citizens and corporate bodies are expected to collaborate. Active participation of all persons and institutions involved in census operations, apart from their "civic responsibility", is technically essential. Refusal to give information, or the giving of false information, will place the entire census operation in jeopardy, whether a complete enumeration or a sample survey is being conducted.

1.13 The legal obligation to cooperate in the census concerns not only individual holders and corporate bodies operating agricultural holdings. In some countries all literate persons, especially if civil servants, may be required to collaborate as enumerators, supervisors, etc.

1.14 In other countries, generally the census enumeration does not need the obligatory participation of the population because it is conducted by the staff of the national statistics office or related government agencies.

Confidentiality of information and penalties

1.15 One of the most important conditions for the success of a census is the absolutely confidential treatment of the information provided by the respondents and the assurance that such information will be used only for statistical purposes. This should be firmly and clearly stated. In several cases a reference to confidentiality is made on each census questionnaire to remind the enumerator and to reassure the respondent as to the protection and confidentiality of the information.

1.16 Penalties are imposed mainly for two kinds of offenses: in the case of respondents, for non-participation or for giving false information; and for violation of confidentiality on thepart of enumerators and the authorities concerned. Other cases, such as mutilation or defacement of schedules, acts done ultra vires, use of information for personal purposes, etc., are also considered.

Suggested reading
FAO (1984). Agricultural census legislation.
UN (1992). Handbook of population and housing censuses: Part I, Planning, organization and administration of population and housing censuses. Studies in methods, Series F, No. 54.

Extracts from the Statistics Act
March 1992