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Census 2021

Volume 755: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in relation to the next census due to take place in 2021, whether they have now rejected the possibility of replacing the traditional census format.

My Lords, the Government recognise the value of the census but believe that it is outdated in its current form and could be more effectively and more cheaply delivered. Decisions about its future after 2021 will be announced in the usual way but the Government agree with the conclusion of the Public Affairs Select Committee that the census needs to change.

Has my noble friend read the Economist of 5 April? It said:

“Britain’s decennial population count has been saved. Now make it work better”.

The Office for National Statistics also stated in March that it,

“recognises that special care would need to be taken to support those who are unable to complete the census online”.

In the light of both those statements, can my noble friend tell the House what safeguards there are to ensure that the roughly 20 million who are not literate online, and the half a million who were left out from the last census, will be able to take part in this new census?

My Lords, the Government are of course keen to encourage people to respond online. The paper-based census takes a great deal of time to analyse and transpose. It was some 16 months from the last census in 2011 until the first data became publicly available. If more people do it online, that could all be done a great deal more quickly but in 2021, although we already understand that 80% of households now use the internet daily, there will of course be support from the usual recruited field force to assist those who do not use online materials.

My Lords, following the very pertinent question from the noble Lord opposite, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the new category—that is to say, since 2011—of Gypsies and Travellers will not be lost in any new system, because it has already yielded invaluable factored information about the disadvantage experienced by these communities?

My Lords, I think that all Members will recall that we use a field force to go and find the people who are the most difficult to get hold of and those in whom we are most interested. The Office for National Statistics estimates that the last census was some 94% complete. We suspect and fear that the 6% we missed were strongly represented among the most vulnerable elements of the population.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the delay last time between the census and the publication of the first results, and indeed to the further delays for the more detailed results. The forms are not complicated. Putting the information into databases and publishing it should not take 18 months, two years or even more. It is a simple task to get the information from the forms, whether the information is collected digitally or on paper, and then publish it. Can we have an assurance that the Government are looking at making this much more efficient and quick next time?

It is part of our mission to try to get the information ready for use more rapidly. It is also part of our mission, and the Office for National Statistics and the Public Affairs Select Committee reports both touch on this, to use the administrative data that are available to the Government so that we do not just have a snapshot of where we are every 10 years but, rather, we can have a rolling set of information about what we have. For example, if you want to know how many children there are living in a local authority area, the Government have that information in the form of recipient addresses for those on child benefit.

My Lords, given that presumably there will be a census organised on a UK basis from London in the year 2021 irrespective of the technology that is used, can the Minister give us some commitment on behalf of the Government that figures relating to the number of Welsh speakers living in England will be collected? The figures at the moment relate only to Wales, and whereas other languages are collected in England they are not in relation to Welsh speakers in England. This is very misleading.

I note the noble Lord’s question. We have not yet decided exactly how many questions there will be in the next census. I should correct him, however: the census covers Great Britain. The arrangements for Northern Ireland are a little different.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s acceptance that the census needs to be updated. I also welcome what I take to be the Minister’s announcement today that the Government are planning to reuse administrative data to get more accurate and timely information. However, can he confirm that such reuse of administrative data will be coupled with a sample of annual household surveys to ensure that whatever conclusions are drawn from those data are accurate?

That is one of the issues currently under consideration. We have some time yet before we go final for the next census. Administrative data are an important issue. At the moment the Government are involved in an open policy-making process with stakeholders to discuss how we might modernise the various structures of law that apply to different departments and different local authorities about how one collects administrative data. It is our intention in the autumn to publish a White Paper on this.

My Lords, I speak as the president of the British Academy and on behalf of researchers who are working on the big social and economic issues of our time. In thinking about the census design, will the Minister place a high priority on its enormous value in validating other surveys that are at the heart of much of the research on these issues in the UK? Without the ability to validate them against the census, it is extremely difficult to use those to their full extent.

My Lords, we are well aware of the relevance to the social science community of government data in all their forms. The administrative data, some of which are not yet available, are also of considerable importance to social scientists of all sorts. I know that consultations are well under way, including with the British Academy, and I am sure that they will be taken fully into account.

My Lords, the previous census recorded the increase in the number of us who profess no religion. Will the Minister ensure that that question is re-examined as there was a lot of controversy about it last time?

My Lords, there is a great deal of discussion about how many questions to put on the census on each occasion because the more questions you put on, the less likely it is that everyone will fill them in completely. That discussion is well under way, but we do not have to decide that until we are a good deal closer to the next census.

My Lords, with a multilingual Britain, will the forms be available online or offline so that everybody is able to fill them in and understand the full implications of their answers?

My Lords, I do not have full information about how it will appear online, but I note the question about the many different languages. The administrative data include a very good indicator of the changing ethnic and linguistic composition of local authority areas. The best indicator about changing composition is the first language of children coming into reception class in primary school. That is a rolling indicator that the Government can use to supplement the census.