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House of Commons
Session 2009 - 10
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Roger Gale
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Blizzard, Mr. Bob (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)
Kemp, Mr. Fraser (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab)
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian (Bridgwater) (Con)
McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Roy, Lindsay (Glenrothes) (Lab)
Smith, Angela E. (Minister of State, Cabinet Office)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon) (PC)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended (Standing Order No. 118(2)):
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 30 November 2009

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Draft Census (England and Wales) Order 2009
4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Census (England and Wales) Order 2009.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Gale. This is not the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, so I know well of your customary fairness in all Committee proceedings.
The draft Order in Council gives effect to the proposals of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority for the Office for National Statistics to conduct a census throughout England and Wales in 2011. The proposals were set out the Government’s December 2008 White Paper, “Helping to shape tomorrow”. There are two important general points to make about the detail of the order, the first of which is why we need a census. A census is the most important source of population statistics. It provides the only sort of statistics for both small areas and minority population groups. For more than 200 years, it has provided the underlying information that successive Governments have used to devise policies, to make decisions and to deliver services. Central and local government depend on census-based information to allocate billions of pounds of public funding each year. There is also the issue of how the 2011 census differs from the 2001 census.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con) rose—
Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is so quick off the mark that I shall give way to him.
Mr. Syms: There was a lot of argument after the previous census about an undercount in some urban areas—London, in particular. Even if we take out some people who were trying to make the best of a bad job, was a review undertaken after the previous census on how accurate it was, especially in urban areas? Has that been encompassed in the 2011 census?
Angela E. Smith: I applaud the hon. Gentleman for his impatience to get to the heart of the matter, but the accuracy of a census is one of its crucial aspects. The concerns that have been raised by a number of hon. Members and others about accuracy have been built into the work of ONS and the questions that have been asked in the census to ensure greater accuracy. I shall come to those points, but the issue of accuracy is most important.
How does the new census differ from the 2001 census? There have been changes in its content and, in a sense, the Government’s involvement has also changed. The new independent UK Statistics Authority, of which the ONS is a part, reports directly to Parliament. The ONS will lead on the census in 2011, as it did in 2001 but, at that time, the ONS reported to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Given its new independence, the contents of the census order that we are discussing have been produced not by Ministers, but by the ONS following extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. That independence is essential for building public trust in official statistics.
I shall now say something about the detail. Under the Census Act 1920, an Order in Council is necessary to prescribe the date of the census, the people to be counted, the people responsible for making a census return and the information to be given in the census returns. The date of the census will be 27 March 2011. Everyone will be recorded at the place where they are usually resident. We also need to count household members who are temporarily absent on census night. Some additional information will be collected on household visitors, which is essential if the ONS is to ensure that visitors are properly counted at their usual residence.
The person responsible for making a census return is to be the householder or joint householder, but any individual aged 16 or over may make a separate individual return. The information to be given in the census returns is covered by article 6 of the order, set out under schedules 2 and 3. Regulations to be laid before the House in spring 2010 will set out the detailed conduct of the census and will contain copies of the various questionnaires. The ONS has carried out extensive consultations on the information to be given in the returns—particularly on the issue of accuracy raised by the hon. Member for Poole—with central and local government, MPs, community groups, businesses, academia, the third sector and the general public.
The ONS has also carried out in-depth question testing during the period from 2003 to 2009, building on the valuable experience and lessons learned from the 2001 census, to ensure that the proposed questions in the 2011 census are justified both in terms of the need for the information and the fact that they are publicly acceptable.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Minister says that there has been an exercise in trying to learn from the 2001 census, but was not one of the lessons learned that the more complicated we make the census, the more inaccurate it becomes? This census will include more questions than ever before, some of which might be regarded as being of a prying nature. Notwithstanding that point, which I am sure we will come on to later, does the Minister not think that asking so many questions which take so much time to complete, will result in even greater inaccuracy?
Angela E. Smith: No, I do not. There are not many more questions—there are some extra questions, but others have been deleted. There are six additional questions. Making the census easier to complete is also about the layout. As we progress, I will say something more about that, but the way in which the census form is laid out makes it easier for people to understand. I refute the suggestion that any questions are prying, and the hon. Gentleman might wish to return to that at another point.
Michael Fabricant: How many questions will there be, and how long does the Minister anticipate that it will take for an individual to complete them?
Angela E. Smith: The number of questions answered might differ from individual to individual, because some lead on to the next question. Answering the questions will probably take between 10 and 15 minutes per individual. I went through the form, and it took me just under 10 minutes to answer, so that is the kind of time that we are looking at. I am sure that we can find other examples—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will try to fill the form in himself to see how long it takes.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): On a point of clarification, I understand from the privacy impact assessment that there are 32 questions and the form will take 40 minutes to fill in. I congratulate the Minister on her speed, but the public advice is that it will take longer.
Angela E. Smith: I do not think that I am much better than anybody else. It depends on the speed of writing and on how many questions somebody answers. The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of how many people in the household answer questions. Obviously, if there are six people in the household, it might take longer than if there is just one person. I will look at the matter again, and answer the questions to see whether I am being super-quick or whether that is the normal pace. We all know that Ministers have to go through things quickly.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does the Minister expect the number of people who fail to fill in the forms to increase or decrease, given the way in which the forms will be set out and the questions will be asked?
Angela E. Smith: I would expect the response rate to increase, partly due to the way in which questions are ordered and worded. The expectation is for an increased response rate.
Under the terms of the 1920 Act, some items—those printed in italics in the draft order—may be included in the census only if they are approved by affirmative resolution of the House. Only a few of those points are new to the census, and I will deal with them specifically, which might help the hon. Member for Lichfield.
People born outside the UK are asked about their date of entry into the household. Those who arrived in the past year are asked about the length of their intended stay. There is an increasing need for more accurate and reliable statistics on migration in general, particularly short-term migration. The census will therefore provide information on shorter-term migrants and temporary foreign workers, and help to provide a better understanding of their needs and impact on local labour markets and demand for local services. People will be asked to state the country of any passport that they hold. Departments and the European Union require statistical data on the citizenship of the population. The question asks about passports rather than citizenship, because asking directly about a person’s citizenship can confuse respondents, who might mistake the question for one of national identity. People give more consistent answers to a question about passports, and it is easier to use the results to produce the necessary citizenship-related information.
People will also be asked to register another address where they spend time. Such information is useful to local authorities that need to know the number of people who stay within the area and use local services during the week, but who have a usual residence elsewhere. People will record their national identity in addition to their ethnicity.
Michael Fabricant: One criticism of the 2001 census was that although someone could say that they were British and also state that they were Scottish, Welsh or from Northern Ireland, the option of saying that they were English was apparently not available. It was felt that if someone was English, they were British. However, if that is the case, why allow “Scottish”, “Welsh” or “Northern Irish” as an answer? Will those who want to state that they are of English origin have the option to do that this time?
Angela E. Smith: The simple answer is yes. In addition, people may describe themselves as English and British or Scottish and British, for example. People may also use a write-in box to describe themselves as being another nationality and British and English. So, there is a tick-box for “English” as well as a write-in section.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I will briefly add another piece of information. People were actually not allowed to call themselves Welsh in the last census because there was not a “Welsh” tick-box, leading to a sustained campaign by a certain political party. I welcome the fact that such a tick-box will be available this time.
Angela E. Smith: I am obviously doing very well as two hon. Gentlemen are already happy with the order.
People will also be asked about their main language, allowing central and local government to better target language support and resources to those sections of society unable to access public services properly due to language barriers. People whose main language is not English will be asked to state their proficiency in speaking English, with an additional, similar question about proficiency in Welsh in Wales. That will give greater insight into the need for language training and community work to combat any possible discrimination and social disadvantage suffered by people whose language skills could be improved.
All other items requiring affirmative resolution cover topics that were included in the 2001 census, but I will refer specifically to two of them where there have been some slight changes to the information to be collected. The question asking people to assess their general health over the past 12 months has been expanded to a five-point scale, ranging from “very good” to “very bad”. That information will be used for the planning of health policy and the provision of services, particularly for the elderly. The question on qualifications has a new tick-box to indicate any foreign qualifications that are held.
Other questions deserve mention either because the proposed wording has been revised since the last census or because particular interest has been shown by hon. Members. Following the Civil Partnership Act 2004, the traditional census question on marital status has been expanded to include response categories for civil partnership status.
Members may also be aware of lobbying campaigns by Kashmiri, Sikh and Cornish groups, for example, on the ethnicity question. It has not been possible to include a tick-box for every ethnic group category requested. Each request was reviewed against a detailed set of prioritisation measures before the final recommendation was made. That identified that the strongest need for additional response category tick-boxes was for “Gypsy and Irish Traveller” and “Arab”, which will be included in the 2011 census. People can record their ethnicity in whatever way they choose by recording it in the write-in spaces provided. All such responses will be counted. In the case of Sikhs, there is also the option of ticking the specific Sikh box in the religion question. The Government are satisfied that the census complies with national legislation on race relations and any international conventions on the protection of national minorities.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On Sikh self-identification, there is an understanding among the Sikh community of the Government’s position, yet regret that the Government have been unable to include Sikhs as an ethnic group within that section of the census or accommodate Punjabi as a cultural and ethnic status.
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