On Valentine's day, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, myself and many others went to No. 10 Downing street where we engaged in a peaceful demonstration and gave the Prime Minister a Valentine's card. Many organisations of different types that represent the local community were present. They included the Southend Association of Voluntary Services, the Friends of the Palace Theatre, Southend Carers Association, Growing Together, Trust Links, and Southend Youth Council to name just a few.
Not only has the result of the census devastated council services, but on 24 February the very able leader of the local authority, Councillor Howard Briggs, announced that he intended to step down in May. That was not because he was gutlessly walking away from the problem, but because his health had suffered. He just felt that, in all conscience, he could not go on and face all the difficult decisions that will have to be made in future unless the Government get the national census results changed.
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I know that the Minister is fair minded, and I say to him that Southend, WestI must get the figure right, because I think I claimed the last time I raised the issue that I had a constituent who was aged 120has the most people aged between 100 and 112 in the country. There are a huge number of senior citizens, and Southend council is now having to making awful changes in terms of the support provided to a number of them.
In 1981, 160,000 people resided in Southend and, in 1991, the census told us that the figure was then 176,000. My hon. Friend and I represent an urban area, so it is not a question of people just vanishing. It is an urban area with more people than ever living in it. There can be absolutely no dispute whatever about that, and the Government agree with me. A couple of months ago, a Home Office Minister answered a question on population growth. She said:
"In February 2005 the Home Office announced that intensive family support will be introduced in 50 TOGETHER antisocial behaviour action areas through a £1.25 million cash boost. The £1.25 million will be split equally between the 50 action areas with each area getting £25,000. The growth areas which will be covered by the scheme are: Harlow, Peterborough, Southend on Sea, Northampton and Hackney."[Official Report, 15 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 202W.]
We then had an argument about the number of patients who are registered with general practitioners. According to the Southend-on-Sea primary care trust, there are roughly 177,522 people registered with general practitioners in Southend. A written reply from the former Health Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), confirmed that figure, but according to the national census, there are 17,000 fewer people in Southend.
Now I come to the rub, and my meeting with the national census people on Monday 9 May. I frankly tell the Minister that I was disappointed by the meeting. I shall not name individuals, but I was worried that the officials whom I met, who seemed slightly heartless, did not understand the terrible effect that the census has had on residents in Southend. It has had a devastating effect, but their response in the meeting was, "No, no, no"everyone was wrong except them. I said to them at one stage that the only way forward would be for me to try to persuade the Government and the Minister to ask the Office for National Statistics to examine carefully the results of its census. As the meeting went onadmittedly, I was fairly robustI was dissatisfied with their answers about how the census was conducted.
There is a huge number of immigrants and asylum seekers in Southend. When the new director of social services arrived on the sceneshe has now goneshe immediately embraced the Government's helping hand to assist Kosovan refugees. However, not one Kosovan has ever gone back. They are still in Southend in large numbers, and I am advised that many asylum seekers and immigrants simply did not show up on the census. When I asked the ONS how many prosecutions it had pursued in Southend, I was told that not one person was prosecuted for non-compliance with the form. I tell the
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Minister that that is crazy. When I asked how many staff were employed to conduct the census, I was told that officials would write back to me, but what was said did not convince me that the process was entirely rigorous. I was also not convinced about how the mid-census figures had been checked because it seemed to me that just some sort of computer analysis of the situation had been undertaken.
The Government want respect, so I hope that the Minister will ask the ONS to treat the matter seriously. It has dealt with one or two concerns raised by other hon. Members, so my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East and I now want this matter to be treated seriously. We cannot wait until 2011 and 2013. The situation must be dealt with pretty quickly. The local authority believes that the ONS has badly underestimated Southend's population in the 2001 census. The ONS has missed households in the census and the census coverage survey. There was a low response within households to the census in Southend, which means that not everyone in the household was included on the form. That was a huge mistake. Following the 2001 census, the ONS revised mid-year estimates since 1991 show a flat or declining population, whereas all the administrative data point to an increase. What the census has come up with is crazy.
The Minister knows that the conduct of the 2001 census has been subject to criticism. The census estimate of population is subject to significant statistical manipulation, whereas local administrative data and sources are not. The census and MYEs are not consistent with local administrative data, such as council tax, primary care trusts, GP registrations and planning records, which all point to a higher population and to population growth in Southend. They certainly do not indicate decline. The ONS track record on projected population estimates between the census is doubtful. Its method for estimating migration, especially international migration, is not robust. For example, according to the ONS, Southend has flows of around 7,000 internal migrations and about 1,000 international migrations, which net off to a small increase. Small errors in those figures can account for inaccurate estimates.
Even the ONS found a difference of 1,412 occupied dwellings between council tax registration and the census. That is a 2 per cent. increase. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East and I would welcome the extra funding for 1,500 people. If the Minister could at least persuade it do to something about that, it would go part of the way towards making amends for the 20,000 missing people.
The ONS estimation of Southend's population does not support long-term demographic trends, such as the ratio of babies to four-year-olds when the number of women of childbearing age has risen rather than fallen. The statistical manipulation of the census returns is undermining confidence in the result. For example, the ONS places great store on the census coverage survey conducted after the census to pick up people in households who were missed by the census. However, it seems unable to acknowledge that households and people could have been missed by both the census and the census coverage survey.
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The ONS projects a population growth for Southend of 160,000 to 171,000 in 2021some 11,300 people. That is not consistent with the Government's Thames gateway plans for 6,000 additional homes in Southend by 2021. All Departments disagree with the ONS. So how is it that everyone else is wrong bar the ONS?
I end with these thoughts on the way forward. The Government tried to find a way forward in 2004 because Southend is a low council tax authority. Excluding the Isles of Scilly, there are 46 unitary authorities and only three have a lower council tax. The council have taken the Government's threat of capping seriously. The Government expect the town to grow in line with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's Thames gateway ambitions. All other Departments think that the population of Southend will increase by more than that.
I want the Minister to agree to a meeting with me, my hon. Friend and perhaps the chief executive and leader of the council to discuss these important issues calmly. I also want the Minister to talk to the ONS and ask it to carry out a population study into Southend in advance of the 2011 census. We simply cannot wait until then to put matters right.
I know that the Minister is fresh to the job, but he has listened to my concerns before, albeit in an office different from the one he now holds. I simply ask him to reflect on the fact that all Government Departments appear to disagree with the ONS, to offer a helping hand to my hon. Friend's and my constituents in Southend and to help us to get those 20,000 people back on the census so that we can receive appropriate funding.