Utilisation of prison labour in digitising the 1901 Census

FOI request reference: F0056076
Publication date: March 2019


Under the FOIA 2000, I am requesting records relating to the TNA’s use of prison labour to digitise the 1901 Census in preparation for its release in 2003. In particular I am asking the TNA to disclose:

a) details of any arrangement with HM Prison Service to utilise prisoners for this exercise,

b) how much prisoners were paid and how many hours they spent working on the task,

c) what issues arose from the use of prison labour

d) if any of the work had to be redone by non-prison labour and at what cost?


Section 12 engaged, advice and assistance given


Your request has been handled under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000. The FOI Act gives you the right to know whether we hold the information you want and to have it communicated to you, subject to any exemptions which may apply.

Section 12 – Cost Limits

We have determined that we will not be able to answer your request in full because to do so would exceed the cost limit provision under section 12 of the Act. Section 12 (1) of the Act, makes provision for public authorities to refuse requests for information where the cost of dealing with them would exceed the appropriate limit, which for The National Archives (as a central government department) is set at £600. This equates to 25 hours staff time (or one person spending three and a half working days) on determining whether the department holds the information and then locating, retrieving and extracting the information.

We estimate that it will take us in excess of this to identify the appropriate information, and locate, retrieve and extract it in response to your request. This is because the information is not held on a central, searchable database. To identify if we hold and to retrieve the information you have specified in accordance with your definitions, would require significant work by multiple business areas to manually search through numerous electronic and paper files to locate and determine information relevant to your request. Whilst we have conducted an initial search of our electronic and paper records by the file titles which are considered to most likely relate to the nature of your request, to continue to manually search through these records is not possible within the cost limit. Therefore, unfortunately we are unable to continue with your request.

Section 16 – Advice and Assistance

To explain further, until 2003 corporate records were held in paper registry files, and thereafter they are held electronically. There are very few electronic records regarding the digitisation of the 1901 Census, and many of the paper files have been destroyed since the digitisation project was completed. The Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the management of records issued under section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 states that as ‘a general principle, records should be kept for as long as they are needed by the authority: for reference or accountability purposes, to comply with regulatory requirements or to protect legal and other rights and interests. Destruction at the end of this period ensures that office and server space are not used and costs are not incurred in maintaining records that are no longer required’.

We believe that we have searched through all the relevant digital records, but we have not been able to search all the paper records. We have, however, tried to prioritise the review of those paper records that were seen to be immediately relevant. After an initial search of the remaining electronic and paper records that are held, we have identified some information that is considered to be of relevance to your request and may help you in further refining your request. The information we are able to provide is in the form of extracts (see below) from a review (dating from 2003) of the 1901 Census digitisation project.

If you were to refine your request, we may be able to provide further assistance. For example, you could try reducing the scope of your request to specific contractual information or a specific event that you are interested in. We would also suggest that you limit the date range to a small time period; (perhaps one year). Please note we are unable to guarantee that any refined requests would fall within the cost limit.

You may find this guidance on making an FOI request useful to narrow the scope of your request:


Further guidance on section 12 can be found at:


In answer to the four specific queries which you raised, the following information and advice may be helpful to you:

a) Details of any arrangement with HM Prison Service to utilise prisoners for this exercise.
The National Archives does not hold information in relation to this part of your request, as we did not deal directly with HM Prison Service in utilising prison labour. As part of our initial search, no details have be found regarding the arrangement to utilise prisoners, other than mentioned in the extract from the project review of 2003 (see replies below to points c & d).

b) How much prisoners were paid and how many hours they spent working on the task?
During our initial search we have not identified any information in relation to this part of your request.

c) What issues arose from the use of prison labour?
During our initial search we have identified some very limited information. For your convenience we have identified the relevant parts of the project review that most closely relate to ESS and the use of prison labour and copied them below:

‘From early in the implementation period, transcription was an issue as it rapidly became clear that ESS did not fully appreciate the scale of the transcription task before them and their key priority for the work was to reduce re-offending rather than deliver to time and cost. As transcription was on the critical path, the programme was 16 weeks in arrears by May 2000 and when the first set of data was received from ESS in July 2000 it did not pass the quality assessment tests. The lack of progress by ESS was raised at the highest levels of government. At this time, PRO also set up a Transcription Project Board. With the agreement of PRO, QinetiQ and ESS, ESS subcontracted the transcription process to other external commercial transcribers from August 2000. In addition ESS, QinetiQ and PRO agreed that PRO should take operational responsibility for the management of the overseas commercial transcription contracts, as it had previous expertise in this area.’

d) If any of the work had to be redone by non-prison labour and at what cost?’
Again, during our initial search we have identified limited information on this issue. For your convenience we have identified the relevant parts of the review that most closely relate to ESS and the use of prison labour and copied them below:

‘External contracts started to be let by ESS with Atos Origin and Hays in October 2000. By January 2001 of the eight reels of data produced by ESS received by PRO from ESS only one had passed the accuracy check. By March 2001, PRO had agreed with QinetiQ to take on the editing work to edit transcription errors. A recovery plan was put into place and milestone dates were set in June 2001 for completion of all the transcription by the end of August 2001, completion of all QA and editing by October 2001 and loading of all the data on the system by November 2001. The recovery plan was successful and all the data and images had been loaded onto the database and image servers and checked for completeness by 23 November 2001. In the end, 88% of the transcription work was done by commercial data input companies based in India, Sri Lanka and the UK. PRO Transcription Board was discontinued in August 2001 after successful completion of transcription.’

The National Archives contracted the practical aspects of the project to QinetiQ, who in turn subcontracted the transcription work to ESS (Enterprise Supply Services, the commercial wing of HM Prison Service). These organisations would be more likely to be in possession of specific information relating to your request, such as how much prisoners were paid. It is uncertain if ESS still exist, but QinetiQ is believed to still be in business. We recommend that you contact QinetiQ or HM Prison Service for further information.