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2011 Census

Volume 504: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2010

The census rehearsal, unlike the 2011 census, was voluntary and was carried out in just three areas. To date, the provisional percentage response is 38 per cent. overall and analysis of the rehearsal returns is still ongoing.

The Minister, knowing Southend well, will know that I am appalled by those low figures, given that the 94 per cent. average at the last census was even lower in Southend. We felt that we undercounted by about 20,000 people, which cost us £7 million each year. Will the Minister agree to meet me and Southend council in the time before the general election to make sure that we are fully prepared for 2011?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I would be happy to meet him after the general election as well, to discuss the matter. I understand the points that he makes, but the census rehearsal is voluntary. There was no publicity about it and it does not in any way reflect the response rate that we will get for the census, which I anticipate will be much the same as at the last census. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman, which will be helpful in terms of the points that he raises, is that additional work is ongoing by the Office for National Statistics, which undertakes the census, to ensure that the response rate is as high as possible. That is part of the reason for the rehearsal—to look at the actions that the ONS can and will take in areas that traditionally send in fewer response forms. So action is being taken to address the very points that he made. Indeed, the ONS has been meeting Southend council and others to look at increasing the response rate.

What efforts are being made to reach groups that are traditionally difficult to reach, such as ethnic groups or Gypsies and Travellers?

The ONS has put additional work into that. More than £2 million will be spent to encourage organisations and individuals who have been more reluctant to respond to the census to encourage them to do so. Billions of pounds of public money is allocated in expenditure each year, and it is right that we have projections of where the population lives and what the needs of future populations will be. That applies to all populations in this country, so every effort will be made and extra resources will be put into ensuring that those people are able to respond.

How can the cost of half a billion pounds, which is double the cost of the last census, be justified at this time of fiscal crisis? In 2001, 10 per cent. of the data was not even counted; it was imputed. Is this not a thoroughly wasteful and inaccurate exercise?

Absolutely not. It is a very valuable and important exercise. The cost is about £482 million, but we estimate that the benefit to the economy of the work that has been done is about £700 million, so the benefits outweigh the cost. The cost is about 87p per person per year. For every person in the country to pay 87p per year for the benefit that we get from the census is good value.

The census is not even accurate. Why are Ministers rushing to send millions of the 32-page census forms to the printers this March, a full 12 months before the census date? Should not a responsible Government be scaling the census back? Is not the answer a less intrusive, much cheaper census that offends the public less, increases compliance and therefore yields much more accurate information?

I think the right hon. Gentleman struggles to make his point. If we look at the costs of censuses across the world, our census is better value for money and cheaper than those conducted in such countries as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the USA. In the USA the census costs more than £2 per person per year—significantly more than in this country. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may find that amusing, but I find value for money quite an important aspect. The Government are doing everything they can, working with the ONS, to ensure that the information is accurate. It is important that the response rate is as high as possible. We use the information to help to allocate Government priorities and Government expenditure, so I totally refute the right hon. Gentleman’s comments.