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Cabinet Office

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 21 December 2010

I am very grateful for this opportunity to make a few introductory comments on the 2011 census, in which I am supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). He has sent his apologies for being unable to be here today, but he and I had a conversation about this issue this morning and he supports the comments I will be making, not least because they have been informed in part by an excellent briefing from Westminster city council. That is a comfort, because the council and I spend six days a week fighting like ferrets in a sack, so it is a pleasure when we are able to find areas of common agreement.

Ten years ago there was massive under-enumeration of the population in my constituency and my borough of Westminster, as well as in Manchester, many parts of east London, Cambridge, Oxford and many other areas of the country. One million fewer younger people than anticipated were counted at the end of the census process in 2001, leading the then director of the Office for National Statistics to comment that he thought they were probably all in Ibiza. That was a very good joke but, unfortunately, it hid a serious truth, because the reality was that the under-counting of the population in 2001 was almost entirely among harder-to-reach communities—poorer communities, black and minority ethnic communities and the more mobile communities—and that mattered. It mattered both in terms of the purity of the data and in terms of the grant allocations to local authorities.

In my borough of Westminster, 63,000 fewer people than anticipated were found by the census, and the contact rate was just 71%, which was the fourth lowest in the country. It took the local authority—I know because I was working with it—at least three years to convince the Government and the ONS that the census had been wrong. It was wrong in part because the contact rate was so poor, but it was also wrong at a most staggering level in that census forms were simply not delivered to entire estates. It was an extraordinarily incompetently managed exercise.

The four sweetest words in the English language are “I told you so.” Before the 2001 census, I told the local authority, the Government and the ONS what would happen. The glow of self-righteousness lasted for longer than the census period itself, but it has given me no real satisfaction because this took so much time and did so much damage, and because the imputing of statistics after the process cannot capture the complexity of the population at a small-area level. The fact that the ethnic make-up of populations has not been thoroughly identified has meant that ever since we have not had sufficiently accurate data to be able to administrate health and local government services properly.

The 2001 census was subject to scrutiny by the Public Administration Committee and the London Regional Select Committee, which I briefly chaired, and I pay tribute to the officers who organised that scrutiny process. A number of evidence sessions were held, and by the end of the process I was convinced that some lessons had been learned from the errors of 2001. A proper address register is being compiled for the first time, although I suspect it will not be maintained, and investment has been put into the scanning and tracking of census forms to ensure that there is real-terms accuracy in their return.

Set against that, however, is the fact that we now know from Government statements that the 2011 census will be the last one. That sends out a powerful psychological message. It is likely that this census will not attract as much support as previous ones. Also, local authorities and voluntary organisations, who are important partners, are distracted by cuts. The funding for administration is under pressure, and the Government have stated that they would like to see reduced funding. Above all, despite the ONS’s commitment to a partnership with local authorities, it maintains a one-size-fits-all approach to management. The Westminster council briefing states:

“the ONS has placed a great deal of emphasis on the idea that the 2011 census is to be delivered in partnership with local authorities but the lack of local flexibility means that, for example, Capita’s recruitment is so complicated and restrictive that the ONS have been unable recruit even half the staff needed locally.”

Is the Minister content that staff will be recruited and trained properly?

There continues to be a serious risk that the ethnic minority populations will be the most significantly under-counted. Westminster’s own survey found that the response was low, particularly in the high-churn districts, where it was as low as 4%. Without additional assistance and the Government giving a higher priority to this, and without the ONS now rapidly adjusting its response to the lessons being implemented by Westminster and others to improve the quality of the census process, we are in danger of not only repeating the failures of 2001 but possibly producing an even worse outcome in some areas. That will be bad news for local government and bad news for the health service. It will also reflect badly on the Government, and I ask them to make sure that, in the 20 remaining weeks, these errors are corrected.

When I was thinking about this debate and my speech, I was conscious that the term “big society” has only recently been added to the political lexicon. In my opinion, it is not a new concept, however. One might almost call it an age-old human value. Here is a quotation that I believe begins to explain what the big society is:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

That was said by a man called Edmund Burke, who was the MP for Bristol in 1774.

Edmund Burke was one of the first writers to realise the importance of the spontaneous social groupings that people create for themselves. Social scientists have increasingly recognised that Burke’s little platoons are the glue that holds society together and makes it tolerable. The point I am trying to make is that big society initiatives and volunteering empower people, and I think the big society could be one of the biggest social mobilisers we have had for generations.

It is not just poverty and difficult family circumstances that hold young people back; it is also the poverty of aspiration and a lack of good role models. By being part of a community group—whether in politics, sport or the arts—inclusion gives young people a sense of purpose and aspiration. It gives them a sense of community and active citizenship, and it can provide them with successful role models who can lead the way.

I know how difficult it is to escape from the constraints of our individual circumstances. I would not be a Member of Parliament if it were not for the fact that I was once a volunteer. At the age of 18 I wanted to engage in the political process locally and get involved in campaigning for a political party. It was only when I met other like-minded individuals, albeit from very different backgrounds to my own, and when I was inspired by role models, that I started to think that, perhaps, even I, who had left school at 15 with no qualifications, could one day be a Conservative Member of Parliament. People see others who are doing it, and they start to think, “Why not me?”

There are many examples in my own constituency of volunteer groups that inspire young people to mobilise and be part of the community. I think of the volunteers who run my youngest son’s Army cadet detachment in Patchway—unpaid, passionate individuals who give up a lot of their time to keep the detachment going and to give the youngsters the chance to broaden their horizons by learning how to live and work with people from all walks of life, and who teach the cadets real life skills and provide great role models. I was also lucky enough to be invited to meet, at one of their weekly meetings, the St John Ambulance cadets in Bradley Stoke. I met some wonderful young people, some of whom are so passionate about their cause that they want to go on to become doctors and paramedics and take up other roles in the medical profession. I am in the process of arranging a trip for them to the House of Commons.

The big society is about overcoming the problems Britain faces by pulling together and working together. In this vein, real change does not come from Government alone, but, more importantly, when the people are inspired and mobilised. This is the underlying ethos behind the big society programme, and it is the approach we should take to improve social mobility.

In practical terms, the big society is a vision that can partly be described as championing local people at grass-roots level so that they can empower themselves and their communities, and partly as encouraging the private sector to help us to tackle social problems and to contribute to society as a whole. As the Prime Minister states:

“all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians’ words without”

the empowerment of people at a local level.

Nat Wei, the highly successful social entrepreneur who, as executive chair, has been instrumental in setting up the Big Society Network, has said that in groups people

“learn what society fundamentally is”.

He has also said that that

“grouping at the local level is arguably a public good”.

The big society is intertwined with the improvement of people’s lives and circumstances. The big society initiatives and the mission to improve social mobility pave the road on the journey back towards a healthy civil society—towards a 21st century-friendly society, in which all are invited to be active members.

I also wish to pay tribute to some of the organisations in my constituency, which are most prominent in my mind, for what they do to improve social mobility through big society programmes. I am thinking of the council for voluntary service in south Gloucestershire, which gives the voluntary and community sector in that area effective and accountable representation. By sitting on various strategic bodies and supporting other voluntary sector representatives, it ensures that volunteers are represented in local government. The guidance and assistance provided by south Gloucestershire CVS is invaluable to the voluntary sector locally. I also pay tribute to the Southern Brooks Community Partnership, which has done so much to promote the big society agenda in Filton, Bradley Stoke and elsewhere.

The Government’s vision for a big society with more diverse providers of public services and greater power for communities to make local decisions brings huge opportunities to charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises. I am pleased that as well as providing these new opportunities and rights, the Government will assist new providers by improving access to the resources they need and providing funds to pilot the national citizen service. The big society bank will bring in private sector funding, in addition to receiving all the funding available to England from dormant accounts. I know that that, in particular, will help to transform the lives of many of our young people. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but I am deeply encouraged by the commitments that the Government have already made to the big society agenda and to improving social mobility in our country hugely.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the all-new, super-duper, pre-recess Christmas Adjournment debate. I wish to discuss the plans for a city status competition in Her Majesty the Queen’s diamond jubilee year and the arrangements for that contest. If I get the opportunity to do so, I might just make the compelling, excellent and fantastic case for the beautiful city of Perth.

We in Perth were delighted when it was announced that there was to be a city competition in 2012 and we look forward to putting our compelling, excellent and fantastic case, alongside like-minded towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. We naturally presumed that, once again, the Cabinet Office and the relevant Minister would attempt to ensure that a wide range of cities from throughout the United Kingdom would be rewarded with official city status, in recognition of the different civic traditions, arrangements and cultures in our diverse component parts of the United Kingdom. We therefore cannot begin to say how disappointed we were with the plans that we saw and how puny they were. Instead of encouraging a good competition, one that would match the commitment, energy, enthusiasm and ambitions of a range of candidate towns and cities across the United Kingdom, this time the Government have, for some reason, sought to award this status to only one city throughout the United Kingdom. After the efforts that we have made in our city, that has come as a crushing disappointment to Perth, as I am sure it has to other small applicant towns and cities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Perth first approached the Ministry of Justice a couple of years ago to see whether it could secure official city status in advance of its 800-year anniversary: it is 800 years since Perth was awarded a city charter and became a royal burgh. We were encouraged to drop that plan and bid in the 2012 competition, which is what we have decided to do. Perth sees itself as a different aspirant city because it was an official city; it had its lord provostship. That goes back to what I was saying about the differences in tradition and culture between Scotland and the rest of the UK. We do not have mayors; we have provosts. It is bizarre to ask us to compete with towns and cities that have mayors, given that we have provosts. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that.

Perth was an official city—in fact, it was the capital of Scotland and was where the Kings of Scotland were crowned. Until the 1970s, when the town was so callously stripped of its official city status, it was considered to be the second city of Scotland. So for us this campaign is not about securing city status; it is about restoring that status and it is a matter of justice. Even in 2010, Perth is still very much considered a city: it is the “Fair City” of Sir Walter Scott’s book; it is the gateway to the highlands; it is the legal, administrative, commercial and educational centre of one of the largest areas in the United Kingdom, with one of the fastest growing populations in the country; and it even has a far-reaching international footprint, as we see when watching the English cricket team struggling to preserve the Ashes out in Western Australia.

When considering this competition, we must ask how we have done it before. In 2002, we had the Rolls-Royce version of a city status competition, when each of the nations of the UK had its own internal competition. That year, the city of Stirling was lucky enough to be awarded official city status. The millennium competition was not quite the same—with different competitions throughout the UK—but the equivalent of the Ministry of Justice at the time put real effort and energy into awarding this status to a range of cities from across the United Kingdom. Brighton and Hove, Wolverhampton and Inverness all won, so there was one winner from the south of England, one from the midlands of England and one representing the rest of the nations of the UK. That was a fantastic example of how a city competition throughout the UK could be organised and it was far more generous than what is on offer the next time around.

Such is the concern that, in a rare gesture of political unity, all the political leaders in the Scottish Parliament have come together to express their concern that Scotland will be overlooked. We in Perth are confident that we can see off all comers, because we believe that our case is fantastic, excellent and compelling, and that the beautiful city of Perth will be a real contender. However, what we presume will happen, given that there is to be only one winner, is that this competition will be lazy and sloppy. We presume that it will tend to favour the largest and those with greater access to the centre of power and—dare I say this?—it may favour applicant towns with one Conservative Member of Parliament or with several Conservative MPs.

We know that 11 towns from England are bidding to be official cities this time around, the smallest of which is twice the size of Perth and the largest of which is five times as populous, so they will have greater resources to deploy. If I were representing an English applicant town, I would expect to win this one. I would not expect the winner to be from the Celtic fringe. Given that England is the largest constituent part of the UK, I would expect one of its towns to win. All I am asking the Whip to pass on to the Minister is a request to review slightly what the Government have in mind for this city status competition and to do what was done last time around. The Government should reward a series of applicant cities from across the UK and make this fair. Let like compete with like. The Minister can still do that, because the plans can still be altered. Let us have a proper, genuine city competition that can meet and match the ambitions of communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

May I, too, associate myself with the kind remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) in passing on good wishes to everyone at this time of year?

I wish to discuss the West Lothian question, which, as I am sure all hon. Members appreciate, is the nickname given to the situation post-devolution in which MPs here at Westminster who represent Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish constituencies may find themselves able to vote on matters that do not affect their own constituents.

In West Worcestershire, which I think of as being the heart of the heart of England, this issue is being raised increasingly frequently with me. Recently, I took part in a television debate, where the reporter had been to the border between Shropshire and Powys. Located on the border is a village called Chirk, which is divided. On one side of the town prescriptions are free and on the other side they cost £7.20. The differences do not end there, because the village might also be divided over matters such as university tuition fees and other services where the Welsh Assembly Government might treat their residents differently. Do not get me wrong, I am a big supporter of devolution and the process of localism that we are going through. It represents enormous progress. I am also a big supporter of the Union, but it does not mean that the West Lothian question can be swept under the carpet for ever.

The manifesto on which I was elected said:

“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation”

of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on matters that do not necessarily affect their constituents. It continued by saying that we

“will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”

I completely acknowledge that during the five days in May, when the coalition’s programme for government was put together, the pledge was somewhat changed, and a commission has been called for to look into the question.

On 26 October, I was able to ask the Deputy Prime Minister in the Chamber for an update on when the commission might be established, and he replied:

“My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who has responsibility for constitutional affairs, will lead on that and he will announce our intention to set up a commission on the long-standing knotty problem of the West Lothian question by the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 154.]

Last week, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) received a written answer from the same Parliamentary Secretary, to the effect that the Government are

“continuing to give careful consideration to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the commission. Its work will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords to create a wholly or mainly elected second chamber, the changes being made to the way this House does business and amendments to the devolution regimes, for example in the Scotland Bill presently before the House. We will make an announcement in the new year.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 822W.]

So my first question for the Department is: will the Government clarify which part of the new year that is likely to be, and confirm that the new year referred to is, indeed, 2011?

I should like to use this opportunity to preview my private Member’s Bill. I was lucky enough to be placed seventh in the ballot, and the Bill has its Second Reading on Friday 11 February. It has the innocuous title of the Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill, and from my research into the West Lothian question I have found that the challenge is to get around parliamentary privilege. We are all elected to this place equally, and we can all have an equal say and vote on all issues, and we certainly do not want to have two categories of MP.

Many much more distinguished brains than mine have wrestled with that knotty problem. In 2000, Lord Norton of Louth looked into the matter and came up with some proposals; in 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) had a private Member’s Bill on the issue; and Lord Baker of Dorking had a Bill in the Lords in 2005. The current Prime Minister then asked the now Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), to look into the issue.

It might be possible to use Standing Orders and Speaker certification to identify which Bills affect which parts of the UK. My private Member’s Bill simply calls on draft legislation to identify and outline which parts of the UK it affects. It is a simple piece of preparatory, enabling legislation, and I urge all hon. Members who share an interest in the matter to come to me with their ideas. My second question is: will the Government be able to support my private Member’s Bill?

The Christmas Adjournment debate is a good opportunity for the Government, 2010 years after a botched census led to a baby being born in a stable, to get the 2011 census right. Slough has for a long time been a victim of the failures of the previous census, and as a result we have been underfunded for a significant period. I am concerned that worse problems might occur in the 2011 census, and they will arise from a combination of inadequate resourcing and flawed methodology.

The first flaw in the methodology is the emphasis, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) pointed out, on using the post. That is a deterrent to people in my constituency, many of whom have poor literacy skills. Moving as a primary school teacher from Peckham to Slough, I was shocked by the poor literacy in the constituency that I now have the privilege to represent.

Slough’s “hard-to-count” score is assessed as a three, which puts it in the top 20%, but that is another error. It should be assessed as a four, and in the top 10%, to account for our transient and diverse population. One indication of the rapid change in Slough between 2008-09 and 2009-10 is that schools in my small borough recorded 531 recently arrived pupils from 53 different countries.

The score also does not take proper account of the impact of houses in multiple occupation. Slough can provide the Office for National Statistics with information about 1,500 HMOs of which the authorities are aware. For the remaining 2,000 HMOs, which are implied by census and survey data, only one questionnaire will be posted, however. If the questionnaire is posted back or completed online, no follow-up visit by a census collector will take place. Only if a questionnaire is not posted back or not completed online will there be any opportunity for accurate counting through a follow-up visit, and those houses in multiple occupation are just ordinary terraced houses.

Additionally in Slough, a number of people live in sheds and other hidden households for which we have no address, so there will be serious problems in dealing with that. I should like to suggest five remedies to which I hope the Minister will respond.

First, the Minister should ensure that the people responsible for collecting census forms have the requisite language skills. Slough borough council is concerned that none of the census posts being advertised has language as an essential requirement. The recruitment and selection process that Capita is delivering on behalf of the ONS means that there are no face-to-face interviews, and that selection decisions are based on performance in online testing and questioning. Although language skills are listed as desirable for all roles, they are not part of the recruitment and selection process, but they should be.

Secondly, will the Minister ensure that the operational elements of the 2011 census include dedicated and adequately resourced events at which people can complete census questionnaires? Currently, the planned completion centres will not have sufficient personnel who are able to re-issue household questionnaires. Only ONS staff can do that, and in my borough only seven and a quarter people will be able to do so.

As a result, in a very verbal town, the events in the centres, which could be a good way of ensuring that people are able to complete their questionnaire, will not take place frequently enough or in enough places. Are the ONS staff trained in questionnaire filling? Will they have the language skills that my constituents require? The ONS says that local authorities can set up alternative completion centres, but local authority staff cannot issue new forms; only the ONS staff can do that.

Thirdly, a national marketing campaign must take place. It has been deferred because of the Government moratorium on advertising, and that is pretty stupid, frankly. Will the Minister ensure that materials are available and clear? Slough has volunteered to translate certain materials, but the ONS has not agreed, so may I have an assurance that the publicity campaign will be agreed to?

Fourthly, we must improve the arrangements for large households. Currently, the head of household will have to request an additional form if there are more than six residents in their household. They will have to do so using a phone line, and in Slough the head of household is likely to be someone for whom English is not their first language, so such requests will be hard to make. May we therefore have better arrangements for people who need supplementary forms?

Fifthly, Slough is under-represented. I am familiar with the London borough of Wandsworth, which is about twice as big as Slough.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Has she considered whether a sampling technique would be better than an actual census?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point, and sampling will take place after the 2011 census, because that will be the last one. Sampling techniques are theoretically great, but I spent 10 years trying to persuade the ONS that its sampling techniques and statistical methods were inadequate, so I know that they are not perfect.

To return to resources, the London borough of Wandsworth is about twice the size of Slough and has a similar ethnic mix, yet Wandsworth has two area managers, whereas Slough has one quarter of an area manager. Wandsworth has two community advisers, the same number as Slough, and 23 co-ordinators compared with Slough’s five. I do not begrudge Wandsworth that; indeed I live in Wandsworth as well as in Slough, but the ONS has shown since 2001 that it does not get Slough and continues not to get Slough. Unless it gets Slough and puts the resources in we will—once again—be under-counted in the 2011 census.

The third sector makes a huge contribution to the quality of life of everyone in my constituency, and given the opportunity it could do even more. In Portsmouth, we are particularly indebted to Community First, which has done so much to support charities and community organisations.

However, there are some very real threats to the sector’s capacity to expand, and even maintain, its current work in the community. Local authorities are faced with reduced grants from central Government. In the economic circumstances, it would be a naive council that thought that it would be protected from the consequences of a massive deficit, but it would be a lazy council that responded to the challenge of a reduced budget by cutting funding to third sector organisations.

If local authorities use this spending round as a cover for a retreat to the comfort of central provision, they will not be thanked and nor will they be acting responsibly. I am sure that everyone in the House understands, and can give many examples from their own constituencies, of how the third sector delivers better value for money and the most client-focused services, raises additional funds and inspires more good will than its public and private sector counterparts. It is said that the people do not know what the big society is, but people do know that and the third sector has been laying the foundations for years. It is big state local authorities that are refusing planning permission for the next stage.

I have identified four key concerns in Portsmouth. First, local authorities must harness the power of the third sector rather than stifling it and running it down. There is a lacuna in service commissioners’ understanding of what the sector can offer and an unwillingness to fill it. The Government have done and are doing much to level up the playing field, but unless commitment is continued at a local level where powers are being pushed, we will not succeed in empowering charities and community groups to become providers or set up sustainable services.

Take a service such as Motiv8, for young people in Portsmouth. The enormous amount of money that it saves the public purse in the long term is well documented and there is no doubt that such services are required. Yet unless it can be sure of transition funding, some of its activities might have to stop. There is no doubt that the ill effects of its absence will be keenly felt and, in time, the council will need to re-establish similar provision—but this time, probably council-provided. That is a complete waste of money and the same could be said for other services such as Pompey Stars, Off The Record and Enable Ability, which already deliver very good returns on investment.

To shut such services in spring purely to reinvent them in the summer, following the loss of staff, premises and good will, seems a crazy thing to do, especially as these services are often able to attract considerable additional funding if they are given enough time to do so.

This small-mindedness is further represented by the lack of a commissioning framework in Portsmouth. That makes it extremely difficult for organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society to plug into the service needs of the population. Work is under way to streamline and standardise commissioning in Portsmouth, but I am very sceptical about whether that will create a level playing field for small voluntary organisations.

There is much to be done on the demand side of commissioning, too. If we are really to tackle the considerable unmet need that exists in Alzheimer’s and dementia care, we must be focused on that need and find ways to meet it. Portsmouth city council must cut its backroom costs and find ways of making every pound spent on these services lever in more funding and volunteers. It should be increasing provision, not shutting services in the north of the city such as those provided at the Patey centre.

My hon. Friend has made a powerful case when mentioning her local council. What she says is absolutely true and applies across the country. My council in particular could learn from it as well.

I thank my hon. Friend; I am sure that everyone can give examples of such things happening on their own patch.

Another example of how the sector could support the commissioning and design of services can be seen in the work of the wonderful Beneficial Foundation, which provides not only training and life skills teaching for people with learning disabilities, but a fantastic business recycling scheme that provides arts and crafts materials for so many organisations. At a time when the council is seeking to introduce a business recycling scheme, would a conversation with the Beneficial Foundation not be worth while?

Thirdly, there is a refusal to maximise our community assets. The Stamshaw and Tipner leisure centre, which has been threatened with closure and demolition on more than one occasion, is due to be made structurally sound next year, but there is no funding to bring the interior up to a standard that would guarantee a sustainable number of bookings from community groups. In response, members of the community have stepped forward to do it themselves—time, tools, materials and donations have been offered. But it has been very difficult to engage with the local authority on simple matters such as the building schedule and getting approval for the work to be done. How much good will is lost when the local authority is not responsive to such offers?

In my patch, many community assets have been neglected for years, and—one suspects—earmarked for demolition, to be replaced by housing. In Cosham, for example, there is the Moat club and the amazing Wymering manor, which is even mentioned in the Domesday Book. I am delighted that at long last the Hilsea lido has been transferred as a community asset. The Pool for the People group is legendary for its hard work and dedication to restoring this wonderful community facility to its former glory. I have every confidence that we will be able to retain these assets and that in the not-too-distant future, generations of Portsmouthians will be able to enjoy the manor and the lido again. However, we have to make it as easy as possible for communities to help themselves.

The final obstacle that I have identified in Portsmouth is the lack of financial transparency at Portsmouth city council. If you go to the council’s website and look for information related to its expenditure, you will find this statement:

“We believe transparency is a key condition and driver for the delivery of our services. As a publicly funded organisation, we have a duty to our residents to be transparent in our business operations and outcomes.”

Unfortunately, that is it. There is no information about what it does spend the money on, and it is one of the only councils in the country not to have published its expenditure online. The north of the city has been scandalously underfunded for decades. The council must move to publish all its expenditure online, so that people in my constituency can see what they are owed and what has been spent—exactly what has been spent on Alzheimer’s and dementia care, for example, and what is going into our community assets.

I also want my local authority to set up a modest transition fund—of tens of thousands of pounds, not hundreds of thousands—to ensure that services whose external funding is not secure by the time of the Budget can continue until the end of summer, when statutory or other funding will be in place. The Cabinet Office needs to work closely with the Department of Communities and Local Government—and, I would argue, directly with Portsmouth city council.

I start by echoing the thanks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), a member of the Backbench Business Committee, to all the members of his Committee and the staff who support its work. We have had an interesting first chapter to this debate and I shall try to provide substantive responses to each contribution.

First, I turn to the speeches made by my hon. Friends the Members for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who both spoke passionately about social mobility and the contribution that community organisations make to delivering the big society. Unlocking social mobility is at the heart of the coalition Government’s agenda. We believe that a fair society is one in which opportunities are detached from origins and everyone has the chance to do well regardless of their background. If everyone can fulfil their potential and people’s talents are unlocked, our economy will also benefit.

However, we should recognise that social mobility trends in the UK are not encouraging. There is evidence that social mobility declined for people born in 1970 in comparison with those born in 1958. Data from the OECD show that, relative to other countries, the earnings of individuals in the UK are strongly related to the earnings of their parents.

We want to reduce the degree to which patterns of advantage and disadvantage are carried across from one generation to the next. The Deputy Prime Minister is championing social mobility within the Government and is chairing a social mobility ministerial group to ensure cross-Government action. A social mobility strategy will be published early next year and several reforms that aim to improve social mobility are already in process. Alan Milburn has been appointed as the independent reviewer of social mobility, to keep us on our toes.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke, who said that the Government cannot improve social mobility by working alone. That is true. Individuals, civil society organisations, employers, community groups and other non-governmental organisations play a critical role in helping people to do well, regardless of their backgrounds. The three pillars of the big society—social action, community empowerment and reforming and opening up public services—will empower people to take control of their lives, and the rest of society, not just the state, will help them to do that.

The Government are committed to supporting the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector to take up opportunities and play its part in the big society. We want to recast the sector’s relationship with the state and give it a huge range of new opportunities to shape and provide innovative, bottom-up services and solutions where state provision has failed. We recognise that those opportunities will not emerge overnight and that, furthermore, spending reductions will also have an impact. We are making £100 million of transition grant funding available to front-line organisations over this and the next financial year to support the sector through this difficult period. That will give such organisations the breathing space that they need.

Ministers have also made three clear commitments to support the sector over the longer term. First, we will make it easier to run voluntary and community groups and social enterprises; secondly, we will put more resources into the sector; and, thirdly, we will make it easier for the sector to work with the state. Examples of our work in that area include the Lord Hodgson review into cutting red tape, and the big society bank, which will help to grow the social investment market and broaden the finance options open to the sector. We are consulting on proposals to improve infrastructure support for front-line civil society organisations in order to ensure that the Government’s investment in improving the capability of the sector in the future is appropriate and effective. That consultation closes on 6 January.

When the Backbench Business Committee produced this pilot form of business, I did not know that we would have the novel experience of hearing a Whip at the Dispatch Box. I think it is my hon. Friend’s first time at the Dispatch Box, but he is doing a good job. I wonder whether we will be hearing from more Whips at the end of term. In many regards, he is doing much better than the normal Ministers.

I think there was a compliment in there somewhere. I remind my hon. Friend that it is not an entirely novel experience. In the previous Parliament and in this Parliament, Whips have been deployed in a variety of ways, including at the Dispatch Box.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) raised the “knotty” issue of the West Lothian question. The Government have announced that they will establish a commission to consider that issue as part of their wider political reform. She referred to the answer to a question asked last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who has responsibility for political and constitutional reform, in which he said that the Government will make an announcement on the commission in the new year. I am happy to confirm that we do indeed mean 2011. That is very much part of our programme for next year. The issue has been around for at least 150 years, so I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire to bear with us and show patience, because it is important that we get the right solution to some difficult issues.

We are continuing to give careful consideration to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the commission. Its work will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords to create a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. There are changes being made to how this House does its business and there are developments in devolution, not least through the Scotland Bill before the House. As I have said, we will be making an announcement on that in the new year.

Two hon. Members addressed the issue of the 2011 census. We had powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). All hon. Members will be aware that the census takes place on 27 March. Accuracy of the census is very important, because it is used to allocate billions of pounds of public spending every year. The Office for National Statistics takes the census extremely seriously and is working very hard to ensure that the problems of undercounting experienced in 15 local authority areas in 2011, including in Westminster, are not repeated. The ONS is actively engaging with every authority to ensure that there is a successful census next year, and it has a partnership plan in place with each local authority. A plan for London as a whole has also been developed with the Greater London authority and the London boroughs.

There is a partnership plan, but the problem is that it is a bit one-way. If it were a genuine partnership, local authorities that are trying to help improve the accuracy of the census would have more ability to contribute to the partnership. If the hon. Gentleman would tell the ONS that, we might have a better partnership.

I assure the hon. Lady that the ONS will receive a full transcript of this debate. I am surprised by her remarks, because only last week, I think, the chief executive of Slough met the ONS to discuss the census. The leader of Westminster city council has also had meetings this year with the ONS on the topic.

On specific improvements to the census process, 35,000 field staff are allocated to areas where it has been hard to obtain responses in the past, particularly inner-city areas and areas of high migration and population change. There will also be a three-times greater effort by field staff to collect outstanding questionnaires than in 2001 and a four-times greater effort in London and some other urban areas, including Slough. Some 200 staff are working within their local communities to engage local residents and community groups, promote the census, encourage local people to apply for census jobs and arrange support and assistance for census completion where needed. Collecting details of second addresses in the census will improve the population counts in local authority areas, such as Westminster. Additional questions about national identity, the intention of migrants to stay and citizenship will support a more detailed understanding of migration and population in areas including Slough and Westminster.

I am not seeking to challenge the hon. Gentleman’s in-depth knowledge on the census, but would he do me the great favour of asking the relevant Minister to write to me on the specific issue of recruitment? We have a genuine problem, and Westminster council’s briefing substantiates that. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) would also like to pursue the matter further with the relevant Minister.

We will write to both hon. Members on a number of the questions they asked about the census. Recruitment is, overall, going very well. Recruitment of 4,000 special enumerator and census collector jobs began in September and is nearing completion; 67,000 applications have already been received. Recruitment of collectors began in November and is also progressing well, with 82,000 applications received so far for around 30,000 roles. Efforts are targeted in the small number of areas where allocations have been slower.

On the subject of the Queen’s diamond jubilee competition for city status, I pay tribute to the work, energy and commitment of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) in supporting his local community’s bid. The last occasion to have been marked by granting city status was Her Majesty’s golden jubilee in 2002, when separate competitions were held in the devolved nations. That resulted in the granting of city status to one town.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Am I right in understanding that the 10-minute limit for my hon. Friend to respond is only guidance and that he can run on into extra time?

As usual, the hon. Gentleman is correct. The time limit was an expectation that I stated at the outset, but the Chair will exercise judgment about when the debate should be concluded. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) is seeking to respond to points, and he may briefly continue to do so.

I am grateful for your generosity and clarification, Mr Speaker. All previous competitions up to 2002 had been organised on a UK-wide basis. The golden jubilee competition was the only time when separate competitions were held for the devolved nations and for England. We regard the bestowing of city status as a signal honour and a rare mark of distinction. Something special will be lost if too many places are granted city status. The Government’s expectation is that only one new city will be created as a result of the diamond jubilee competition and, similarly, that only one existing city will be granted a lord mayoralty or lord provostship.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is very difficult for Scottish cities to compete with English cities, given our different civic traditions and cultures? Does he also accept that if we are trying to ensure that a range of places across the United Kingdom are involved, there has to be more than one winner? Surely, if there is to be only one winner, the largest will naturally be the favourite.

I am not sure that I accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis at all on that. Every bid will be judged fairly on its merits. There are some strict criteria in place, the details of which are available on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website. I hope that those criteria will allay some of his concerns.

I am sure that the tradition of referring to Perth as the fair city will continue, whatever the outcome of the competition. However, there is only one way to become recognised as a city in the UK: by having the honour conferred by the sovereign. That is the prize that awaits the successful entrant to the competition. I wish all potential entrants, including the fair city of Perth, the very best of luck.