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Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury for my part in her having drawn the Thursday night short straw.
I have requested this debate because of the considerable significance of census data to all local authority areas. The collection of accurate information about the population and their characteristics is of incalculable importance, not least because the data that are collected now will form the basis for most of the standard spending assessment block calculations for the revenue support grant settlement in two years' time. The census statistics are the only source of much of the small areas data that local authorities draw on, especially data relating to ethnicity. This is, therefore, an issue of considerable importance to every Member of Parliament, every councillor and many others.
As the representative of an inner-London constituency, I am acutely concerned about this issue. Areas such as mine, in north Paddington and north Kensington, combine all the risk factors associated with poor data collection with all the factors contributing to high and complex levels of demand for services. This is particularly important in respect of ethnicity, because the service requirements of communities in which dozens of languages are spoken within a small area are quite different from and more complex than the needs of communities of similar social and economic characteristics in which there is perhaps only one language group.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the strong population growth in London in recent years, as measured by the mid-year estimates, demonstrates that the population growth is overwhelmingly young. That young population is, by definition, likely to consist of people who are having children now or will do so in the near future, for whom they will naturally expect nursery provision and education. The planning of those services is incredibly sensitive and important. This subject is dear to my heart at the moment because, as of a couple of weeks ago, 250 primary school children in one small area of north Westminster were still awaiting the allocation of a school place for this September.
Under-enumeration in the census, leading to a lack of reliable planning data and, possibly, to financial consequences in terms of grant allocation, has very serious consequences. Yet there can be little doubt that, in some small areas, serious under-enumeration has occurred.
I shall give some examples of where things have gone wrong in my area, and I would like to set them in context. I understand how hard the process is. Dealing with populations of inner-city constituencies such as mine involves assessing accommodation in multiple-occupation houses and in an increasing number of short-let tenancies, both of whose populations are extremely hard to keep track of. This places a huge responsibility on census enumeration, and it is no coincidence that the areas in which I suspect there is a serious problem of
The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea is aware of this problem, and has taken on board the fact that its current electoral registration process is problematic, and that a great many people may have lost their ability to register to vote as a consequence. I am certainly not saying, therefore, that all the problems arising from census enumeration can be laid at the door of the census and the Office for National Statistics. This is a very difficult job indeed.
I am also aware that the problems that we experienced in 2001 are not unique. The census also had huge problems in 1991, rooted in the effect of the poll tax. At that stage, there was clear evidence that a great number of people, particularly young people and those in inner-city populations, were deliberately avoiding the census because of the possible implications for registration for the poll tax. This time round, however, deliberate avoidance of being recorded in the census was negligible. In fact, members of the ethnic minority communities in my constituency, about whom I shall say more later, have stressed to me how keen they were to participate. There is a real awareness in those communities of the importance of their existence, extent and characteristics being recorded by the census, and they went out of their way to do everything possible to ensure that enumeration levels were high. Despite all that, we had some serious problems in some areas.
I received dozens of complaints, not least when on the doorstep in the election campaign. I have already referred many of them to the Office for National Statistics. However, clusters suggest the possibility of a deeper problem. For example, the Westway travellers site was missed out despite repeated requests for forms. The Catholic Children's Aid Society, which works closely with the travellers, took up the matter. That was resolvedI am pleased about thatbut only after the Catholic Children's Aid Society had approached me and I had gone to the chief executive of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who ensured that enumerators got into the travellers site.
Of note, I also wish to point out that enquiries and reports coming to me suggest that the way in which the Census, or lack of it, was handled in the multi-cultural and economically sensitive area of London deserves some sort of apology and explanation for the Bureau".
I also pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of enumerators who did an excellent job. It is not an easy task, and they did as well as they could. However, the fact that I received such complaints from well organised groups such as the Marylebone Bangladeshi Association and residents associations makes me wonder about the extent of non-contacts in more diffuse areas. My greatest anxiety is about those who live in streets of properties in multiple occupation. Those people are not part of well defined and cohesive residents or ethnic minorities organisations.
I received several complaints about the difficulties of accessing the hotline and the lengthy delays in waiting for translation facilities on it. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux drew attention to the hotline problems, such as short holding times and restrictions on access for disabled people.
There were many problems, some of which have been redressed. I am not wholly confident, however, that we will not end up with pockets of significant under- enumeration. That is my key point. The census coverage survey, which will ascribe imputation figures to the populations, may constitute a robust and excellent statistical process. I have no doubt that it is, and that clever people will ensure that door-to-door under- enumeration is assessed accurately. But I am concerned that the characteristics that those numbers represent may not be properly reflected in the census coverage survey, simply because it is highly unlikely that such a survey can correctly ascribe the characteristics of the dozens and dozens and dozens of minority communities and language groups in such a hugely diverse community.
That is the nub of my case and I want the Ministerlater, if not nowto assure me that the census coverage survey and the use of imputation figures will ensure that the numbers are both accurate and an adequate reflection of the diversity and characteristics of an under- enumerated population.
I hope that the Minister will do her best and work her hardest with the ONS to plug the gaps where she can through whatever possibilities remain in the direct process and through the census coverage survey. When the census data are published and used for rebasing the mid-year estimates, we will therefore be able to be confident that the hard pressed inner-city authorities that usually do an excellent job of providing services receive the resources that they require for the populations whom they serve. Those authorities are always looking for the complex pattern of demands made of them to be recognised, and I look forward to the Minister's response.