2011 Census (Southend)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:31 pm on 3rd February 2009.

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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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