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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