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2011 Census (Southend)

– in the House of Commons at 9:52 pm on 3rd February 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ian Lucas.)

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 10:17 pm, 3rd February 2009

All Members of Parliament, regardless of their party affiliations, want to do the best they can for their constituents. All we ask is fairness and fair treatment for our constituents. Sadly, however, the last census served the constituents of Southend extremely poorly and the repercussions were so serious that my hon. Friend James Duddridge and I found that our constituents had suffered a £7 million shortfall.

I do not want to spend too much time dwelling on the past, but it is necessary to share a few things with the Minister—accepting immediately, of course, that he was not in post at the time. It is all there in Hansard—the meetings I had, the Adjournment debates and the representations I made—but at the end of it all, I got absolutely nowhere. I had what I regard as a very unsatisfactory meeting with the people responsible for organising the national census. Frankly, they failed to budge one inch. As a result of the shortfall in funding, Southend council had to cut bus services and all manner of things because we were £7 million short.

Looking back on what went on at the time, I have to say to the Minister that, sadly, I feel that I was not involved at an early stage when the census was being prepared and it appeared to be going wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East was not even the Member for his constituency then, so he has no knowledge of what went on at that time.

I am delighted to tell the Minister that my hon. Friend and I are now working closely with Southend council, having been asked to assist at an early stage so that we can get the Southend census right. On a slightly sour note, I must also tell him that last week, having travelled down from Westminster during the day specifically to attend a meeting with representatives of the people organising the census, my hon. Friend and I received a message saying that they could not make the meeting because they had been stuck at Gatwick, and would eventually arrive some three or four hours later. We had to return to Westminster. It cannot therefore be said that the process has got off to a great start in every respect.

Putting the past behind us, however, I can tell the Minister that Southend has already set up a cross-sector census group chaired by the interim head of policy and improvement. We have engaged Royal Mail to ensure that accurate household data are provided. We have a communications strategy, beginning this year, to educate the public about the survey. I do not want to sound pompous, but I am sure the Minister will understand what I mean when I say that I do not think there is a huge appreciation of the importance of the census among the general public.

Southend borough council is developing area profiles to help the Office for National Statistics to target its enumerators on hard-to-reach areas. According to census regional champion David Monks, it is the first authority to begin preparations for the census. I am very glad that, on this occasion, the council could not be better prepared. My hon. Friend and I think that, under the leadership of Councillor Nigel Holcroft and his deputy John Lamb—together with Rob Tinlin, the chief executive, and one of his officers, Sally Holland—it is doing an excellent job in covering every aspect of what went wrong before.

I have a number of questions to ask the Minister. Obviously he cannot respond to them all tonight, but I hope he will reflect on them in due course, and perhaps respond at a later stage.

Whether the 2001 Southend population count was 16,000 too low, 18,000 too low, as some have said, or 20,000 too low—I believe that estimate, because I support the primary care trust's figures—the under-count led to significant underfunding. I should like the Minister to conduct some research with his officials to establish whether, if similar differences emerge following the 2011 census, there will be a defined and robust appeal process that will be able to draw on all available evidence to determine the population figure accurately. That would reassure the council, because no such system appeared to be operating last time. As far as I can remember, three or four councils' appeals were heard.

Either last week or the week before, the Minister for Local Government responded to a topical question about houses in multiple occupation, which is a serious issue in Southend because it contains numerous such houses. The ONS has commented that they cause special problems for enumeration purposes, some of which may be compounded by the proposed postal delivery system. What guarantees can the ONS give that all houses in multiple occupation will be accurately identified, and that robust follow-up action will be taken to ensure that an accurate census is achieved? The ONS has acknowledged that houses in multiple occupation, both legal and illegal, are difficult to count. They pose a particular challenge when there is no single householder to take responsibility for returning the census form.

I must say to the Minister at this point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East and I have seen the census forms. They are 32 pages long. The constituency I represent has the most senior citizens and centenarians in the country. Anyone who has a lot to do with elderly people, particularly the very elderly, will know that they often do not open their mail—perhaps because their fingers are too frail. How can we expect them to fill in forms 32 pages long? That will be difficult for them to do, unless they have a dedicated advocate.

How will the ONS ensure that flexible living arrangements such as HMOs do not interfere with the collection of accurate census forms? We have a wonderful college in Southend, under the leadership of Jan Hodges. There are already 4,000 students there, and their numbers are growing all the time. The census is being held during the Easter break, so how can we be assured that term-time addresses are accurately collected so as to ensure that Southend does not lose out on funding because the number of students is not taken into account?

Since 2001 we have suffered from a larger demand for services than the budget has allowed for. The revenue support grant element of local authority funding is the main funding stream to deliver local services. If Southend's RSG is increased as a result of the next census, will we be able to access these much-needed funds immediately, rather than in due course?

In October, the ONS will carry out a rehearsal in three areas. I understand that it is voluntary for householders to take part, and the exercise is being used to test the delivery mechanism. Southend feels strongly that this engagement mechanism is not the most reliable for a number of reasons, particularly for houses in multiple occupation and gated communities, of which we have many. How does the ONS propose to ensure that this mechanism works and is accurate, and can we be assured that every household identified will actually receive a census form to complete?

If Southend is successful in obtaining an accurate population count in 2011, that will affect the amount of RSG. What mechanism are the Government putting in place to ensure that these much-needed additional funds are made available to Southend with immediate effect, thereby releasing cost pressures on service delivery?

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East wants to speak, so I shall move on swiftly. The ONS is developing a post-out, post-back mechanism for the 2011 census. It predicts that 95 per cent. of forms will be posted out and 75 per cent. will be posted back directly by the householder. This would generate huge volumes of post in a short time. Can the ONS assure us that whichever provider is chosen will have the capacity to deal with those huge volumes of additional post, and that there will be minimal loss of forms?

Timeliness is essential when working with statistical data, and even more so in connection with designing services for citizens. The ONS has indicated that data will be available approximately 18 to 24 months after the census. Why is there such an extraordinarily long delay in releasing data from the census to local authorities, and will the ONS be held to account to deliver the data in a timely fashion, as is often demanded of local authorities? The ONS has acknowledged that there were delays in the mail system in relation to the forms returned in 2001. What assurances can the ONS give that its proposed postal delivery mechanism will have enough capacity to cope with an estimated 75 per cent. postal return rate?

The ONS is predicting that 25 per cent. of respondents will use the internet. I find the internet challenging in doing my work as a Member of Parliament, so I do not know quite how that will work. What assurances can the ONS give that adequate security and safeguards are in place to ensure the integrity of the internet site so that personal information cannot be stolen and used by criminals? The ONS suggests that the new census form will comprise 32 pages. The increase is due to additional questions being included in the form, and the addition in respect of a sixth person in the household. With growing family sizes and more houses in multiple occupation, what guarantees does the ONS give that it is confident that households of more than six people—we have many of those in Southend—will request an additional form?

The ONS has published proposals to operate a helpline to assist citizens with completing the form, because many households will not receive any of the doorstep support from enumerators that was given during previous censuses. That support is vital for those who do not speak English as a first language, and for the elderly. As many people work long hours, how will the ONS ensure that those who cannot access the 8 am to 8 pm helpline will receive the support that they need?

I have many other questions to ask, so I shall write to the Minister. A big issue in Southend is that the town contains many people from eastern European countries who, for all sorts of reasons, seem reluctant and frightened to return the census forms. What suggestion does the Minister have as to we can encourage those people to be more confident in returning their forms? I have every confidence that he will do his best to ensure that this time, the census in Southend is accurate.

To return to what I said at the start, all that I, like other hon. Members, am asking for is fair treatment. As the Minister knows only too well, an accurate census is essential if Southend is to get a fair share of the money available for essential local services.

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Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:31 pm, 3rd February 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Amess on securing this debate on a vital issue. At the best of times, the relationship between government and the electorate is a difficult one; it is a contract whereby the electorate pay tax in return for the provision of services. As a result of the 2001 census, the people of Southend are being ripped off and I am very concerned about things, despite the preparations for the 2011 census.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, I was not in Southend and I was not a Member of Parliament during the 2001 census. In fact, I was taking part in a census in Botswana, where I lived at the time. Even in Gaborone, someone knocked on the door and went through the census, as happened during our 2001 census. The questions were slightly different—I was asked how many head of cattle and how many chickens I had—but the essence of knocking on the door to get that information was in place. It deeply concerns me that the Government and the ONS will be moving away from that approach in 2011. They are moving away from the idea that someone will knock on the door and deliver the form, and that that same person will come back again and again. The Government are setting themselves up for a worse result in 2011—even compared with the 2001 base point.

I congratulate the ONS on running a number of pilots, but I am baffled why it has not chosen some of the areas that are said to have lost population in the 2001 census. I am thinking of places such as Westminster, Forest Heath, Kensington and Chelsea, Cambridge, Richmond, Manchester, Oxford, Elmbridge and Barnet. Why were those areas not chosen as test areas in order to sort the problem out? If we get the right figures, will the Minister make better transitional arrangements over the following two years, because to wait a further two years, on top of 10 years of unfair underfunding, would add insult to injury? I shall be writing to you, Mr. Speaker, seeking a wider Westminster Hall debate on the census, inviting colleagues from all into those areas to tease out some of the broader subjects. I have also inquired the level of interest in the census across the parties. I believe that an approach was made by the ONS to set up an all-party group on the census, and such a group would be a good way forward.

If I have read it correctly, the Census Act 1920, as amended in 2000, will involve some form of affirmative resolution, probably later this year, to give permission to go ahead with the 2011 census and to set out some of the detail. Such an arrangement would mean wholly inadequate scrutiny on the part of this Parliament. I shall also seek time—perhaps Government time—on the Floor of the House to consider the census. We talk to our constituents about the demand for policing, schools and the health service, but unless we get the base numbers of the population right in 2011, nothing else will make sense.

The 1911 census was made available recently and has provoked a lot of interest from those interested in their family history and in social history generally. After spending £450 million and still getting the figures so wrong, the Government should ask whether it is right to use the census figures as a base point for our funding of primary care trusts, policing and education. They are so vague and inaccurate that they are laughable, but they massively affect the lives of our communities. The issue should be considered again after 2011. Perhaps more accurate data could be gathered annually, with lists updated regularly—like primary care trust lists. That would make the relationship between the electorate of Southend—and more broadly—and the Government much more equitable.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office) (Third Sector) 10:35 pm, 3rd February 2009

I congratulate Mr. Amess on securing this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond, albeit in an arm's length capacity. I cannot do some of the things that James Duddridge might like me to do, as I would not want to interfere too much with the independence of the Office for National Statistics or the UK Statistics Authority. However, I support many of the points that he made about the need to improve the ability to use statistics from other sources in population estimates, and I look forward to his wholehearted support on each occasion when the Government introduce the measures necessary to enable the ONS to do just that.

I thank the hon. Member for Southend, West for highlighting the importance of the census, both in his contribution tonight and on the other occasions on which he has raised this issue in the House. I am pleased to hear about the work that is already going on in Southend, including what he is doing to highlight the importance of the census to the citizens, and the work that he is doing in conjunction with his local authority.

The UK Statistics Authority's proposals for the 2011 census in England and Wales were published in a White Paper on 11 December. In planning the design for the census, officials in the ONS have taken account of the recommendations made following the 2001 census by the Treasury Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office, the former Statistics Commission, other bodies such as the Local Government Association, and Members of Parliament, many of whom had representations to make.

In the time available, I shall seek to answer as many of the questions that the hon. Member for Southend, West raised as I can. He raised the issue of appeals. There is no appeals process planned for the census, but steps have been taken in the design of the 2011 census to giving the highest priority to getting the national and local population estimates right. The ONS will seek to maximise the overall response rate while reducing the differences in response rates between areas and among particular population sub-groups. Local authorities will be asked to provide data from alternative sources in order to assist the ONS with the quality assurance process. That will provide an opportunity for positive engagement before the population estimates are published.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of houses in multiple occupation. One aim of the local authority liaison programme is to identify those areas where there are likely to be high proportions of HMOs, because they do pose a particular problem in census enumeration. The ONS therefore plans to adopt a traditional approach to those areas, using the enumerator rather than the postal approach to identify addresses where additional forms to cover more than one household may be necessary.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of students, and particular attention will be paid to students in the census. In most areas—although I accept not in all—students will be at their term-time address at the time of the census. Others might be living at their home addresses or elsewhere at the time of the census, and students in Southend, as elsewhere, will be counted as resident at their term-time addresses, irrespective of where they are on census day. The census will include a question on term-time addresses for students.

On the rate support grant, the Government consulted local government in December 2004 about moving towards three-year settlements. The vast majority of responses favoured that approach, as it provides predictability and stability in funding from central Government. The calculation of formula grant that an authority receives will be based on the most up-to-date data available at the beginning of the three-year period. It is not possible to say when the 2011 census data will feed into the calculations, because it will depend on when the data become available and on where we are in the three-year cycle at that point.

Both hon. Gentlemen raised issues to do with the rehearsal for the census. That will take place on 11 October, covering 135,000 households in areas chosen to simulate census-type conditions. I will write to the hon. Member for Southend, West with details of why those areas have been chosen and with the criteria that were used. The rehearsal will include 61,000 households in Lancaster, or the whole of the local authority, 40,000 in Newham in London, or 40 per cent. of the borough, and the whole of the island of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn as it is known in this House. Although response to the rehearsal is voluntary, the same procedures will be adopted as in the census and the design of the rehearsal will enable valid statistical conclusions to be made on the effectiveness of the operation.

The hon. Member for Southend, West also asked what support will be in place for local authorities that see their numbers significantly reduced and, as a result, see their grants reduced. A floor damping procedure will be in place to ensure that all local authorities will receive a minimum percentage change in grants to provide stability from the effects of changes from updating data or changing methodology. That will be funded by scaling back the grant increases above the floor for other authorities. The decision on what those floor levels will be will, of course, be taken in due course. A balance will need to be struck between doing what is affordable while allowing some underlying change to come through in the funding of local authorities.

Some concern was expressed by both hon. Gentlemen about the post and the impact of using the post rather than hand-delivered surveys. In fact, in the 2001 census, even with hand delivery, enumerators failed to make doorstep contact with households at more than a third of the addresses that they visited and had to resort to delivering the form through the letterbox. The use of an established postal service will enable a more focused approach to the follow-up activities in order to improve response rates. The plan is for a post-back response of 60 to 70 per cent. The contract with the chosen postal service will demand the ability to cope with that level of response within the time frame allocated. A purpose-built address list and form-tracking system will enable the ONS to monitor and record the delivery of every form in the field, minimising the risk of forms going astray.

The hon. Member for Southend, West asked why it will take so long to release the data. The final results will be released in September 2012, which, he is right, is 18 months after 27 March 2011. The proposals for the 2011 census include an increased emphasis on quality assurance of the results during their preparation—I am sure that he would welcome that increased quality assurance—and cross-checks against other national and local data sources. The statisticians need enough time to conclude the complex task of processing the census data, to make the necessary adjustments for undercounts, and fully to quality-assure the results before they are released and used. A length of time is involved in doing that very complex work.

The hon. Member for Southend, West asked about the security of filling in forms online, and about how appropriate that system is. I think that it is appropriate for people to be able to return forms online, and we may find that the response rate to that is high. The ONS is committed to ensuring proper data security and confidentiality. Despite some of the complaints that are raised in this House, the ONS has a very good record on data assurance, but perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman further details of the plans in place when I write to him following the debate.

The hon. Gentleman talked about growing family sizes, and was concerned about the large size of the form and the additional forms that would be required in households. In fact, the average household size across the country is smaller than it was in 2001, but the form has been redesigned to accommodate space for an additional resident and up to three visitors in order to reduce the number of requests for additional forms. However, there will be clear instructions on the form and in accompanying publicity material on how to obtain additional forms for larger households.

A helpline will also be put in place. The hon. Gentleman was concerned that it would be open only from 8 am to 8 pm, but I can assure him that it will be possible for people to call outside those hours, leave a message and ask to be called back. I hope that that is a helpful observation.

Some concerns have been raised about whether the conduct of the census this time has been designed to make cost savings. In fact, the Government have allocated additional funds to allow for a number of improvements in the 2011 census. Those improvements include more questions, a national address register, an internet collection option, more resources to follow up non-response, and a questionnaire tracking system. Approximately three times the 2001 level of effort will be going into the follow-up operation, which will include helping people—such as the elderly—who have difficulty filling in the forms.

Time is running short, and the hon. Member for Southend, West was kind enough to tell me that he was interested in finding the answer to a number of other questions. He has pledged to write to me after the debate, and I shall be happy to write back to him with detailed responses to his questions.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

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