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The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ruth Kelly): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and I assure her that I am delighted to respond.

The 2001 census is important for my hon. Friend's constituents, the Government and the country. It is a vital source of information on the number and characteristics of the population. The information it gathers is used by the Government, local authorities and health authorities to form policy, to plan services for specific groups of people and, in particular, to distribute resources effectively at a local level. As she said, the results will be the evidence base that informs policy in many key areas for the next decade, so it is important that the information paints an accurate, authoritative and comparable picture of the UK's population and its needs.

Although we shall not have exact figures for the number of people counted until autumn next year, I believe that the census was successful. The return of census forms has been extremely high; the Office for National Statistics estimates that 95 per cent. have been returned and that the overall response will be as high, or higher, than that in 1991.

The 1991 census faced genuine difficulties in accurately counting some groups, and about 2 per cent. of people were not counted. By international standards, that is not a bad performance. Indeed, such under-coverage would not be a significant problem if it were evenly spread between groups in the population, as those missed could be assumed to share the characteristics of the others, but I believe that particular groups were not fully represented in the results.

In the example of young men in inner London and other cities, as many as 20 per cent. or more were missed, so our first challenge in planning the 2001 census was to ensure that those groups were properly counted. Since 1991, changes to population patterns have added to the difficulties that the ONS faces in compiling accurate census data on them. The size of some groups that are more difficult to count has increased, the number of people living alone and in properties with entryphone or other security controls has increased, which makes establishing contact more difficult, and life styles have become more varied, which makes it difficult to catch people at home.

My hon. Friend helped the census by pointing out many of those difficulties to my predecessor and I thank her for the work that she did to ensure that those groups were properly represented. As she said, the groups that are difficult to count accurately during the census are often those that need particular support from the Government, so under-counting has a disproportionate effect on the resource decisions made on the basis of census data. That is why planning for the 2001 census began with the establishment of a coherent strategy to ensure that those groups were accurately counted, and why the final results presented a representative picture of local and national populations.

The main aims published in the census White Paper in March 1999 were to ensure that the questions asked would provide useful information, to ensure that the results would be of good quality and would be produced according to a sensible timetable, to ensure that the whole

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operation was acceptable to the public and to ensure that the census represented value for money. A key priority was to reduce under-counting of particular groups, and to ensure that the results of the census would command the confidence of those who rely on them. That is most critical when the results are used for resource allocation to local authorities and health authorities.

The plans for the 2001 census took on board a range of lessons learned from difficulties encountered in the 1991 census. They also recognised the impact of changes in society and changing needs for information, among Government and others.

The plans for the census were subject to full and open scrutiny before being approved, and were properly developed and funded well in advance. The strategy for the conduct of the census had two main parts. We wanted to ensure that the highest possible enumeration was achieved, paying particular attention to the groups most likely to be under-counted. We also wanted to compensate for any bias by producing a final set of figures giving an accurate picture of the real population in the groups and areas that were under-counted.

Let me explain how we attempted to achieve high returns. For the census in England and Wales, the Office for National Statistics established a range of procedures to ensure good coverage of all members of the population. It was expected that major urban areas, especially in London, would present a major challenge. Areas with high levels of ethnic-minority populations, multi-occupancy accommodation, estates with poor-quality housing or apartments protected by entryphone and other security systems would require particular attention. Arrangements were made to enumerate special population groups including the forces, students, rough sleepers, refugees and asylum seekers. Planning for the census was aimed at ensuring all those groups and areas were properly enumerated, including areas in which there had been significant under-counting in the 1991 census.

The ONS adopted a variety of approaches to overcome specific difficulties. A major initiative was the local community liaison programme, in which the ONS worked with minority groups, charitable organisations and local and health authorities to encourage participation in the census and to help to identify sources of potential field staff. The questions and guidance on the census forms were translated into 24 languages, with a further two, Korean and Tamil, added during the fieldwork period. Interpreters were available to be used where necessary. Census materials were prepared in Braille, in large print and on audio tape. A publicity campaign sought to encourage universal self-inclusion. Publicity was also targeted at sectors of the community in which there had been significant under-enumeration in the 1991 census.

Recruitment for the census aimed to ensure that local people who understood the local area carried out the work. Finding the right number of staff with the right qualities proved particularly tough in some inner-city areas. A number of local authorities, including Westminster city council, gave the ONS a great deal of support to ensure that recruitment was effective.

Once they were recruited, training given to field staff emphasised the importance of making contact with householders. Census enumerators were required to make a number of calls during the census operation in order to make initial contact and to follow up households that had

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not responded. At the end of the main enumeration period, there was a further follow-up by team leaders and district managers of households that had still not responded. Enumerators in inner-city areas were given smaller work loads, so that they could spend more time on making contact and returning to households that had not responded. Collection of forms used a team approach that had been shown in tests to improve morale and overall response in hard-to-count areas.

That was the first leg of the strategy. It was designed to target resources on the more difficult areas, in order to increase response and reduce differential under-coverage.

The second part of the strategy was to put in place a robust and accurate method for taking proper account of the people who inevitably were missed and to produce a single set of numbers that everyone could trust. It was critical to produce final figures that were authoritative at local authority level. To ensure that the procedure adopted would command confidence, a steering committee for this part of the project was established, involving academics with international reputations in the field, other experts and representatives of central and local government as well as the census offices.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the census coverage survey was central to this strategy. The survey was conducted immediately after the census. It sought to measure how effectively the census counted households and people by interviewing a cross-section of the population and carefully matching the results from this survey with the census. In England and Wales the survey covered approximately 300,000 households in 20,000 postcodes selected to form a representative sample capable of producing reliable figures for each local authority area. I emphasise that the census coverage survey was broad enough and independent enough to be reliable at individual local authority area level. That was an important feature.

By using the findings of the coverage survey in combination with the findings from the census, the characteristics of those groups that were missed can be imputed and added to the original census database. While small pockets and particular groups of people may have been missed from the original census, the characteristics of the groups from which they are drawn should be covered by the combination of the census and the census coverage survey. It will then be up to the individual local authority to allocate its resources according to its local knowledge and to make up for any small gaps that it thinks may have occurred.

The whole approach was thoroughly tested in a dress rehearsal for the census in 1999, involving some 150,000 households. The areas chosen for the tests included a cross-section of the population and types of housing found in the country as a whole. They included areas with high levels of multi-occupancy, student accommodation, hotels and holiday accommodation, and various ethnic minority groups.

The final element of the strategy involves a series of plausibility checks against other information. For example, by rolling forward the number of births and deaths and adjusting for migration effects it is possible to get a high-level estimate of the numbers in each age group. By looking at the numbers receiving child benefit or retirement pensions it is possible to assess the aggregate numbers and locations of people in each of

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these groups. These plausibility checks form part of a comprehensive quality assurance process that has been designed to reflect the inevitable difficulties that would be encountered, especially among hard-to-count groups. Of course, the real test of this two-stage strategy will be how well it works in practice.

The enumeration itself began in April. London was always expected to present particular difficulties in getting a good level of response, and special attention was focused on it during the planning stages. The procedures that were put in place to ensure the best possible response had a significant effect and there have been good reports from across the capital. Some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised with my predecessor, for example, show the type of situation that arose. Census staff were ready and prepared to follow up concerns so that the job was done as well as possible.

It was inevitable that planning for an operation on the scale and complexity of the census would not cover all the circumstances that could arise, but throughout the census period ONS sought to respond to issues of concern as they emerged.

I note my hon. Friend's point on the census helpline. It was planned to cope with a threefold increase in calls compared with 1991, but the interest was such that 250,000 calls were received on just one day in the week before the census—as many as were received during the entire period last time. ONS installed large numbers of extra lines within 48 hours and the service was improved.

An additional factor was that in this census the public were asked to post their forms back as soon as possible after the census day on 29 April. There was an extremely high return of forms, which the ONS estimates as being close to 90 per cent. of the forms delivered.

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