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2001 Census (Wales)

7.11 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I wish to present a petition of the residents of Wales and the other countries in the United Kingdom. It declares that the census forms for 2001 do not allow those who wish to describe themselves as Welsh to do so; nor do they allow for Welsh speakers resident outside Wales to state that they can speak the language. That would render the census a wasteful and pointless exercise. The petition is presented in both Welsh and English and has 9,455 signatures.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that these forms be amended to remedy these flaws.

And the petitioners remain, etc.

To lie upon the Table.

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2001 Census (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Touhig.]

7.13 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): First, let me assure the Minister and everyone else present that, after a marathon nine-hour journey from west Wales, I do not intend to delay the House too long. It is to be welcomed, however, that we have a little time to debate the issue.

I wish to discuss some aspects of the census to be undertaken in Wales next year, and particularly the lack of the Welsh tick box, as it is known, on the census forms. I wish to discuss also some issues that relate to the Welsh language aspect of the census, which are somewhat less important at present.

About two minutes ago I presented a petition on behalf of about 9,500 residents of Wales and of beyond Wales. These are all people who wished to state that they wanted a Welsh tick box on the census form next year. That demand became apparent over the summer months--perhaps the Government thought that it would be a summer flash flood or storm. However, since the emergence of unhappiness in Wales about the format of the census form, the campaign has grown in status as support has grown. It is an issue that many people in Wales are concerned about for the future.

It may be useful if I outline briefly how we got ourselves into this position. I understand that planning for the census began at least four years ago--it probably began much earlier than that. The White Paper that set out some of the Government's proposals for the census was published in March 1999. That was followed by an exercise in Wales at least, in parts of the counties of Ceredigion and Gwynedd in April 1999. That was before I became the Member for Ceredigion and before I had any representative role in the county.

It is important to emphasise that all those events took place before devolution and before the National Assembly for Wales was established. Most of the consultation on the census format was therefore undertaken with the Welsh Office rather than the Welsh Assembly. That might be one reason why some disquiet has arisen within Wales since then.

In 1991, basically the same question was asked throughout England, Scotland and Wales. At that time, many people thought that it was an adequate catch-all to cater for the situation within those countries. We did not have devolution. However, it is worth noting that in 1991, for the first time, the census form included a question about Irish people, and people of Irish descent within Wales. I have no doubt that that was an important step forward for the delivery of services to Irish people, particularly in some English cities. That begged the question of the position of Scottish people, Welsh people, or whatever.

I do not see this matter as an ethnic issue. It is one of national identity. I note that the National Statistician, Len Cook, has recognised the principle. In his statement last Wednesday, when he announced several concessions on this matter, he said:

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In 1991, before devolution and before we started to discuss some of these matters, the term "British" may have seemed to be adequate. However, it is important that we recognise what the term means now. I think that it designates a mostly white ethnic background. Many people in the United Kingdom do not see it as a useful term. The Runnymede Trust report of about two weeks ago raised the question of how "British" is used as a term. What was tolerable 10 years ago may not suit as a catch-all now.

Once the Scottish Parliament decided that in Scotland the first question on the relevant part of the census would be, "Are you Scottish?", that begged the question what would happen in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom. It would be interesting if the Minister were to tell us--it would take a long history lesson and I am sure that we do not want that and do not have time for it--when Britain became England and Wales only. When was it that we could use the term "British" for the residents of England and Wales? That is de facto what we are doing now throughout the United Kingdom with the census. The residents of Scotland have the ability to describe themselves as Scottish and Irish people, wherever they are in the United Kingdom, have the ability to describe themselves as Irish. All other ethnic groups can use the term that they find most appropriate.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the House. I think that on page 15 of the census form there is a question about place of birth. People can indicate whether it is England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. After that, there is a question about ethnicity--for example, whether one is British, Irish, white, black, African, Asian or whatever. There is also the facility to write Dutch, German, French, Welsh or whatever. The form does not deny anyone. A tick box is not required. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so unsure of his Welshness that he requires a tick box to affirm it.

Mr. Thomas: I am well aware of what the form says: I have it in front of me. I shall deal with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's argument later, if he will be patience, as I am coming to that issue. However, I shall make a general point. The hon. Gentleman represents the constituency with the highest proportion of people born in Wales and still resident there--more than 95 per cent. I represent the constituency with the highest proportion of people born outside Wales but now resident there. Where people were born is no indication of where they identify with, and it is important to allow people to identify with Wales on the census form whether they were born outside

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or inside Wales, and whether they speak Welsh or not. The hon. Gentleman should realise that, but, in a second, I shall address the point about whether the tick box is the best way to do that.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: No, I shall not take any further interventions for the moment, as I want to pursue my argument.

Following the discussions, and especially in the light of what occurred in Scotland, the Office for National Statistics should have realised what was happening and perhaps returned to the National Assembly to see whether it wanted to make a further amendment to the census form.

A cynical definition of "British" is that it is what those in England call people from Scotland and Wales when they win an Olympic gold medal.

Mr. Smith: You seem to be saying that Welshness is a question of identification. The logic of your argument is that, if someone from England comes to live in Wales and identifies with Wales, he may be regarded as Welsh. If that is your argument, it is against the whole history of your party, which has been based on an anti-English sentiment. I can give an example. During the second world war, child evacuees came to Wales. Your party opposed that on the basis that it would be one of the greatest threats--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman should know the courtesies of the House. He is not referring to the Chair: he is referring to an hon. Member.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) does not half talk rubbish sometimes.

Mr. Smith rose--

Mr. Thomas: If that is the quality of the hon. Gentleman's interventions, I do not want to give way to him.

I and many people in Wales cannot accept that, post the decision on the format of the census form, the term "British" can be used for Wales and England only. Many people accept that "British" refers to the people who live in all these islands.

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